Clicker Training With Horses and The Power of "Yes"

In my introductory article (Clicker Training and Horses: Stepping Stones Across the Swamp, October 2007), I described the first steps with clicker training horses and how I began to work out ways to blend this positive approach with John Lyons' single-rei

In my introductory article (“Clicker Training and Horses: Stepping Stones Across the Swamp,” October 2007), I described the first steps with clicker training horses and how I began to work out ways to blend this positive approach with John Lyons’ single-rein training techniques. Now it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty. There are three phases of clicker training for horses. Ultimately, you will be able to put this approach to work when you ride your horse, too.

There are six foundation lessons in the first phase of clicker training. Here’s what they are and what they’re designed to do:

1. Targeting introduces the horse to the clicker.
2. Backing creates respect of space.
3. Head-lowering helps create a calm horse.
4. “The grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt” teaches emotional control and patience.
5. “Happy faces” makes the handler more aware of the horse’s body language and creates a pleasant expression in the horse.
6. Standing on a mat continues to work on space management and emotional control.

Let’s take a look at each of these lessons.

Lesson One: Targeting
The first lesson is teaching your horse to target. Basically, this means that you present your horse with an object, and when he touches it with his nose, you click and then feed him a treat. In this way, you begin to pair a desired behavior with the click and treat.

Targets can be anything-a lid from a supplement container, an empty water bottle, an old sweatshirt. Look around your barn. I’m sure you’ll find something that’s horse-safe and appropriate.

For this first clicker lesson, I borrow an idea from the zoo world. We use “protective contact,” meaning the horse is on one side of a barrier and the person is on the other. One good way to achieve this arrangement is to put your horse in his stall with a stall guard across the door.

Clicker training should be a fun, safe experience for both you and your horse. And like the John Lyons’ philosophy, clicker training looks at the behavior you want, not the unwanted behavior. You don’t want to get sucked into the drama of correcting your horse for his overeager behavior. If you are correcting him for nuzzling at your pockets, you’ll be poisoning the experience. With a barrier between you, you can simply step back out of range and wait for your horse to touch the target. When he does, click, take the target out of sight and reach into your pocket for the treat.

You don’t want to feed him close to your body. That would only encourage more mugging. Instead, step forward into his space and feed him on his side of the barrier. The food delivery begins to teach him to yield out of your space when you move into his. He won’t even realize he’s in school having a lesson, but this attention to the details of food delivery is preparing him for the pressure-and-release exercises that are to follow.

Lessons Two and Three: Backing and Head-Lowering
Backing and head-lowering are paired exercises because we use both to create better space management and emotional control. You can teach both in a variety of ways. That’s part of the fun of clicker training. You can use different approaches to teach the same behavior. For example, you can use a target to get your horse to take a step back, or have him follow the target down to the ground to lower his head.

In addition to targeting to get these behaviors, you can free-shape them, meaning you do nothing to actively trigger the behavior, but you click and reinforce any slight tendency you see for the horse to move in the desired direction. For instance, to teach your horse to lower his head, you would watch closely for even the slightest natural lowering on his own and immediately click and treat.

You can also use pressure and the release-of-pressure in a variety of ways to encourage your horse to back up. In this case, you are piggy-backing the clicker onto other training methods. You trigger the response you want with pressure. Then you add the power of the “yes” answer signal to connect that desired response to a reward your horse will actively work for.

The caveat here is you have to be careful not to poison the clicker training experience with the threat of escalating pressure. When pressure (such as taking the slack out of the lead rope) is used as information that helps your horse figure out what you want, it fits in wonderfully well with clicker training. But if the horse fails to respond and you increase the pressure to the point that it becomes painful or fear-inducing (jerking on the rope, for example), the pressure clashes with the clicker approach. You may indeed get the behavior, but it will be at the cost of the bright-eyed eager participation that is such a hallmark of the clicker-trained horse.

With most horses, I teach head-lowering beginning with the target, but I then combine the clicker with John Lyons’ calm-down cue. I teach head-lowering off a rein (or lead rope) cue. I first teach the horse to back, and out of this lesson I can trigger a drop of the head. So head-lowering at first is not a forward-moving exercise. The horse may back or stand still, but if he takes a step forward, I will slide down my lead and ask him to back up before allowing him to drop his head.

So here’s the next question: You know what you want. Have you taught him how to do it?

As John says, “You can’t ask for something and expect to get it on a consistent basis without going through a process to teach it to your horse.” This concept applies perfectly to clicker training.

In “Grown-ups,” you are going to learn how to apply every word of that sentence to your training. You will be learning not to ignore unwanted behavior but to be non-reactive to it. We don’t want to add any fuel to the horse’s emotional fire by being drawn into the drama.

“Grown-ups” is a lesson in free-shaping. Instead of moving the horse’s head away with the lead, you wait. The instant he moves his head away, even a little, click, reach into your pocket, and feed him out away from your body, exactly where you want his head to be.

It doesn’t take long for most horses to catch on to this game. They learn that mugging the handler never gets them treats, but standing quietly in their own space does. Now the “grown-ups” can talk, and the horses will know how to wait patiently.

When he drops his head, I release the lead, click, and give him a treat. He quickly discovers he has two good reasons to keep his head down-it keeps my hand off his lead and he gets goodies for relaxing!

Lesson Four: “The Grown-Ups Are Talking, Please Don’t Interrupt”
This lesson teaches emotional self-control and good manners by asking a simple question: Can I stand next to my horse with my pockets full of goodies without being mugged?

In clicker training, we want to focus on what it is we want the horse to do-not the unwanted behavior. “The grown-ups are talking” is a great lesson for learning how this works. Safety always comes first, so if you think your horse might actually grab at you, begin this lesson with a barrier between you. If your horse’s mugging behavior will be limited to nuzzling your pockets, you can go in the stall with him.

Suppose, as you put a lead on your horse and stand next to him, he nuzzles at your jacket demanding goodies. Most people will say they don’t want their horse crowding into them. In clicker training, we need to turn that sentence around. Anytime you find yourself saying, “I don’t want…,” stop yourself and state instead what you do want. “I want my horse to step back from my space and move his head away from my body so he ends up looking straight ahead.” You can build a lesson plan out of that positive statement of intent.

Lesson Five: “Happy Faces”
When you’re first starting out with the clicker, there’s a lot to think about. Targeting can seem like a simple lesson, but many little details can make a real difference to your horse. While you’re focused on timing the click just right and getting a treat to your horse, you may not notice that your horse has his ears laid back warning his neighbor to stay away. You could be inadvertently reinforcing a grumpy expression right along with the desired behavior.

So in “Happy Faces,” I have people simply watch their horses. When an ear begins to quiver forward, click-the horse gets a treat. Most horses catch on fast and will quickly be looking at you with both ears forward. Click and treat. That’s a real jackpot for you as well.

A number of good things come out of this lesson. First, it gives you practice shaping behavior. That means you take a small tendency for the horse to perform in a particular way and by selectively reinforcing that tendency, you increase the likelihood that that behavior will occur again. Shaping behavior improves timing and observation skills, as well. By directing your attention to your horse’s ears, you learn to become more aware of your horse’s body language.

Once you have the behavior, you can learn how to attach a cue to it, and how to layer it into other behaviors. For example, you can ask for “Grown-ups are talking” and then wait to click until your horse has his ears forward.

“Happy Faces” is also part of the safety net you want to build under your horse. People react differently to a horse who has his ears back (in what we would read as a grumpy expression) than they do to the ears forward of “Happy Faces.” We’re more likely to want to be around, work with, and-here’s the bottom line-keep a horse who has a pleasant expression. So learning to pay attention to your horse’s attitude is an important part of any good training program.

Lesson Six: Stand on a Mat
This seemingly simple lesson addresses many emotional control and space-management issues. At first, the mat is a scary object, something most horses will want to avoid stepping on. They’ll step over it. They’ll scoot around it. But they won’t want to step directly on it. This gives you a great opportunity to address any tendency your horse may have to barge through his inside shoulder or to drift through to the outside. You are working on core balance issues using a simple lesson.

Again, you can teach mat work in a variety of ways. For instance, you can use a target to bring a horse up to the mat or free-shape it by reinforcing any interest your horse shows in the mat.

But I like to use the mat to teach rope-handling skills, so I once again will piggy-back the clicker onto a pressure and release-of-pressure lesson. In these foundation lessons, you’re learning how to slide down the lead to a point of contact (take the slack out of the rope), how to stabilize your hand, and how to wait for a response from your horse. Sound familiar? It should. We’re asking for the horse to give to the bit. What we’re adding is the “yes” answer of the clicker so we can build those stepping stones I talked about in my previous article.

Mat work introduces you to the concept of training by priority. This means you are going to stack one criterion on top of another. You might decide you want your horse to stand on the mat with his feet square, his ears forward, and his head at a particular height.

It’s like building a layer cake. You can certainly have the cake and the icing separately. That is, you can teach standing still and ears forward as two separate behaviors.

But once you put them together, there is a definite order of priority. You don’t want to put the icing on the bottom of the cake, and you don’t want to be clicking for ears forward if your horse has just stepped off the mat.

Standing on the mat is the most important criterion. He must have his feet on the mat to be clicked and reinforced. But once he is on the mat, you can wait until his ears are forward to click and treat. If he steps off the mat but perks his ears forward as he does so, too bad. No click for him. You’ll return him to the mat to rebuild your sequence.

Training by priority is a skill you’re going to use later when you ride and ask your horse to give to the bit. Suppose you are working on connecting your horse’s feet to the rein for a lateral flexion. You want him first to soften his jaw and then to move in the desired direction. If he stiffens and locks his jaw, you’ll go back and focus on that primary element. Everything is everything else in training. As you work on these basic foundation lessons, you are really teaching both yourself and your horse the skills you’ll need later for riding.

Keeping Things in Balance
Here’s another important principle: For every exercise you teach, there is an opposite exercise you must teach to keep things in balance.

That’s simple enough to understand. If I teach “go,” I’d better also teach “whoa.” Otherwise, I may end up with a horse who has no brakes. Novice trainers often get things out of balance. They have a high energy horse, so they spend a lot of time turning and bending and teaching him to stop. Their horse gets the lesson so well that he begins to act as though his feet are stuck in cement. Trying to go forward, the rider encounters an angry swish of the tail and a stalled-out horse. In this case, things have gotten way out of balance.

One of the reasons you don’t see experienced trainers getting into major wrecks with their horses is that they know how to keep things in balance. They don’t let the pendulum swing too far either way before they focus on the behaviors that will keep things in balance.

The mat is a great place to learn about this concept. If you spend a lot of time reinforcing your horse for standing on the mat and you don’t take care to take him off the mat fairly frequently, you will find yourself with a horse who may have become glued to the mat. He knows what the answer is. He knows where he gets all the goodies. Ask him to leave, and he’ll glue all the more to the mat. He may even pin his ears and grump at you for trying to “trick” him into leaving.

To avoid this problem, let him stand on the mat for just a few clicks and treats, then lead him off the mat. He’ll learn that he gets reinforced both for being on the mat and for leaving it. But suppose you forgot this piece. You were so focused on the mat, you forgot to take him off it and now he’s stuck. One of the great advantages of clicker training is that it is a forgiving system of training. You can use one of your other foundation lessons to bring things back into balance.

In this case, bring out your target. As he steps off the mat to follow the target, click and treat. As you balance mat work with the targeting, you are introducing stimulus control into your training. You are moving into the second phase of clicker training.

Phase Two: Stimulus Control
Stimulus control is more than simply having a cue attached to a particular behavior. It means that the behavior occurs when you ask for it and only when you ask for it. In the absence of the cue, you don’t see the behavior.

Understanding how to use incompatible behaviors to teach cues is an important part of this process. You can teach stimulus control using pairs of behaviors. For example, suppose you free-shaped backing. When your horse wants to play the clicker game, he starts backing up. At first it was great fun. You showed off your clever horse to all your friends. But now you want him to stand still so you can groom him, and all he wants to do is back up for his treat. Have you created a monster? No, you’re just part-way through a multi-step process.

You need to attach a cue to the backing behavior and then pair backing with an incompatible behavior. He can’t go forward and back up at the same time, so teach him to step forward, attach a cue to that behavior, and now use both cues to create a balance between the two behaviors. You’re well on your way to having a well-mannered, eager-to-please horse.

Phase Three: Prepare to Ride
You’re also well on your way to creating the performance horse of your dreams. Your horse understands the clicker; he knows how to use the information it provides; you’ve established polite ground manners. You’re just about ready to use the clicker under saddle. For me, that means combining clicker training with single-rein riding and John’s give-to-the-bit work.

Here’s a simple explanation of how this works. Let’s suppose your horse is one of those stiff-as-a-board, feet-stuck-in-cement horses. We’ll start out on the ground with this horse, teaching him to soften to the lead rope. You’re going to stand off to the side, by your horse’s shoulder. You’ll slide down your lead just to the point where all the slack is out. The idea is not to pull your horse’s head to the side. You’re going to be free-shaping your horse’s behavior with this slight tension on the rope. There’s pressure from the halter on your horse’s head, but not enough to cause pain or fear-just enough to make him aware that you want something. So now you wait. And you wait. And you may even wait some more. You’ll be reminding yourself that a little bit of pressure over a long period of time will create a desire for change.

At some point, your horse is going to move. Maybe something else attracts his attention and causes him to turn his head. Or maybe it’s just a slight muscle twitch. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big thing or a little thing: Click! You’re going to release the lead and give him a treat.

Now the click and the release overlap. They are both marking the same event. A novice handler may at first think they are equivalent, since they are paired initially. But they are going to serve very different functions. As the training progresses, these two markers, the release and the click, are going to slide apart.

As soon as you release, you’re going to slide up the lead and ask again. Your horse may not yet understand what he did to get you to let go of the lead. He may go back to immobility. That’s fine. Again, you wait. It’s important not to rush. If you were to escalate the pressure, your horse might indeed respond, but it would be out of a quick reaction to avoid the pressure, not from a deliberate, thought-out act.

Alexandra Kurland is the author of Clicker Training for Your Horse, The Click That Teaches: A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures, The Click That Teaches: Riding with the Clicker, and The Click That Teaches Video Lesson Series. She earned her degree from Cornell University, where she specialized in animal behavior. She has been teaching and training horses since the mid-1980s. A pioneer in the development of humane training methods, Kurland began clicker training in the early 1990s. She quickly recognized the power of clicker training for improving performance, for enhancing the relationship people have with their horses, and for just plain putting fun back into training. Today, through her books, videos, clinics, and many articles, she has become a leading voice in the development of clicker training in the horse community. For more information on clicker training, visit

So instead of escalating the pressure, you’re going to wait at your point of contact (holding the lead rope with the slack taken out) for your horse to become aware of the pressure from the lead, to consider what to do about it, and to make a deliberate move to release the pressure. When he makes the correct choice, click, release the lead again, and give him a treat.

As you repeat this, your horse responds faster and faster to your hand sliding down the lead. He’s responding and softening his jaw to the side before you can even begin to slide down the lead. Perfect. It’s time to move on, to separate the click from each individual give.

So you’ll slide your hand down the rope and ask for a give. Your horse will soften beautifully as before, but now instead of clicking, you will simply release the lead. The release says, “Yes, that’s right,” and you’ve given him something he wants-your hand off the lead. It’s negative reinforcement-you’re taking away something the horse doesn’t want, which strengthens the desired response. As the horse makes the connection-turning his head to the side makes you let go of the lead-he’ll turn his head more readily. The turning behavior has just been strengthened, reinforced by removing the pressure.

You could train using only this element, but we’re going to enrich the meaning of the pressure. It’s not just going to be something your horse wants to get rid of. It’s going to be information your horse uses to get to his click and treat faster. That’s why it is so important that we not poison the game with escalating pressure. You want your horse to be able to trust your hand and the information it provides. You don’t want him to be wary of the lead or the rein.

One of the things that I appreciated early on in John’s work was his statement that you want the horse to trust the rein-that it should never be used to punish or frighten a horse. That is something I very much agree with.

So you release the lead, and then you immediately pick it up again. You’ll get a second softening of the jaw-a release. And a third release. Each time you release, your horse will be bringing his head slightly to the side. You can mark an especially good response with a click and a treat. After each click, change sides so your horse becomes soft and responsive to both reins.

As your horse becomes engaged in this game, there won’t be any hesitation at all as you pick up the lead. So now you’re going to count. You’ll ask for one, two, three softenings in a row, releasing on each one. As you pick up the fourth time, look back at your horse’s hips. He’ll be in a perfect position to shift his weight off his inside hip. As he does, click! Mark that first give of his hip with a treat.

Both the click and the release say “yes,” but the click and the treat that follow serve to highlight that new step. It becomes the exclamation mark at the end of a complex sentence. Your horse will keep working because he knows a click is coming. He won’t regard the repeated requests down the lead as nagging. Whenever you slide down the lead, you are telling him there is new incoming information. You need him to change what he is doing. When he interprets that information correctly, you’ll release the lead. And when he makes enough of a balance shift to meet your new criterion, click-he gets a treat. The puzzle has been solved successfully.

In this way, you will develop a thinking, mentally engaged horse who is eager to work and fully understands your commands. By combining clicker training with single-rein riding, you’ll create a safe, responsive horse-the highest priority. Perfected, these lessons lead to high performance in a wide variety of disciplines. The click is a magnifier, bringing out the best in our horses. If you want the perfect horse, this is one way to get there.