Trick Training: Make it All Click

Teaching your horse tricks is fun, but it also offers a valuable lesson in control to create a safer ride.

Horses are very much like toddlers. you know when they’re happy, and you also know when they’re mad. Consider what happens when you’re out riding and you come to a fork in the trail. If you want to go one way and your horse wants to go the other, does your ride suddenly turn into a rodeo?

That’s where trick training can help you. Tricks are fun to teach, and even more fun to show off. And, it turns out, they’re also good training for your horse. Tricks help to teach him emotional control.

As you teach tricks and put them on cue, your horse will be learning the emotional control that will make him a safe riding horse. You’ll also be learning about timing, and chunking lessons down into small steps. In other words, through trick training, you’ll learn how to use the principles common to all good training.

The Clicker Plays Its Part
The tricks I’ll share with you in this article are all based on target training. You’ll see how one basic skill can be used to create many different, complex behaviors. The photos in this article also show how you can begin with target training and expand into tricks.

Tricks of the Trade

  • Teach a horse to play, and the whole world becomes a much less scary place.
  • Instead of getting mad or giving up, trick training can encourage extra “heart and try” in your horse.
  • Target-based clicker training is the starting place for many tricks.
  • By adding stimulus control to your tricks, you can turn nuisance behaviors into truly clever tricks.

Many of the target-based tricks are taught by withholding the click. Your horse will learn about variable reinforcement schedules. In other words, if something doesn’t work after one or two tries, instead of getting mad or quitting, he learns that he should keep trying until he finds the right answer. Through trick training, you’ll build extra heart and try into your horse.

Trick training also has another great value. Horses that have learned to play kick ball and open mailboxes are a lot harder to spook. Teach a horse to play, and the whole world becomes a much less scary place.

Target Training
Here’s a quick review of the basic skills you’ll use to teach these target-based tricks.

• For safety in your first lesson, put a barrier between you and your horse. Put him in a stall with a stall guard across the door. If a stall isn’t available, use a small paddock.
• Hold a cone or some other object up in front of your horse. Horses tend to be curious about such things.
• Your horse will likely sniff the cone. The instant he touches it, click.
• Take the target down out of sight. Reach into your pocket and hand your horse a treat well away from your body.
• As soon as he’s taken the food, hold the target back up for him to touch. Make sure it’s within easy reach so he can be successful.
• If he tries to mug your pockets, step back out of range, but continue to hold the target out where he’s likely to touch it.
• When he touches it, click and reinforce.

Equine Retriever
After you’ve taught your horse to touch a target, it’s easy to get him to retrieve it. Begin by slowly lowering the target to the ground. When he’ll touch the target even when you aren’t holding onto it, you’re ready to begin teaching him to retrieve. Instead of clicking every time he touches the target, you’ll withhold the click. Now he has to bump the cone several times to earn a single click.

He’ll learn that he has to keep on offering behavior to earn a click. If he quits after one or two tries, nothing happens. If he goes on bumping the cone, at some point you’ll click and give him a treat.

He won’t be sure why some touches work and others don’t. The touches will begin to vary. Sometimes he’ll barely brush the cone, and other times he’ll grab at it. This is what you want because now you can pick and choose the touches you like.

Click and give your horse a treat when he opens his mouth around the cone. He’ll catch on fast. It won’t be long before he is consistently closing his mouth around the target.

Once your horse is consistently mouthing the cone, withhold the click again. One of those times that he’s grabbing at the cone, he’s going to lift it off the ground. Even if the lift is just an inch or two, click and make a big fuss. That’s the beginning. Once you’ve got that, just keep shaping the lift until he is handing the cone to you.

Play Ball
Does your horse spook at his own shadow? Or is he an over-eager youngster who’s forever getting into mischief? Whichever type of horse you have, teaching him to play soccer will help.

Hold a basketball or beach ball out in front of him. You’ll treat it like a giant target. Click and reinforce him for sniffing at it.

Set the ball down on the ground and continue to click him for touching the ball. As he bumps it, the ball will roll. That may startle him at first, but the click will help him to be brave. Continue to reinforce him for any interest he shows in the ball. As he gets bolder, he’ll bump the ball harder. Click and treat this extra effort.

Now withhold your click. Let him bump the ball a couple of times before you click and reinforce him. Keep asking for a little bit more. He’ll begin to follow the rolling ball by pushing it in front of him with his nose. Click!

At some point, your horse will probably paw at the ball. That will send it bouncing back under his legs. Click and reinforce him for being brave. If you want a forward kick, use a large beach ball. It’ll be too big for him to paw so he’ll end up kicking it forward. Goal!

Dunking Champ
Once you’ve taught your horse to retrieve, you can turn him into a basketball star. For this, you’ll need a child’s basketball hoop-the plastic kind with its own stand.

Unhook the hoop from its solid base and hold it out in front of you while your horse brings you his target. He’ll be used to delivering it to your hand. It won’t matter to him that you’re holding the basketball hoop in his way. Hold the hoop low enough so that it’s easy for him to lift the target up over the rim. When he drops the target through the net into your waiting hand, click and give him a treat.

Give your horse lots of practice developing his dunking skills. Gradually raise the height of the hoop so that you can set it back in its base. Continue to stand right next to the hoop while your horse perfects this trick. He can’t see where the rim of the hoop is as he lifts the target to dunk it. It takes just as much practice for him to develop his basketball skills as it does his human counterparts.

As he becomes more consistent, step away from the hoop, and let him dunk the basketball on his own. Who knows, with a little practice your horse could be good enough to go one-on-one with an NBA star!

Deliver the Mail
We’ve all seen horses that spook at mailboxes. Watch any trail class at a show and you’ll see horses that won’t go anywhere near the mailbox. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, instead of spooking, that horse would walk up to the mailbox, open it with his teeth, reach inside, and hand the mail up to his rider? He can if he’s clicker trained!

Opening a mailbox may seem like a complicated trick, but it’s really just another way you can use your horse’s targeting and retrieving skills. If he’s afraid of the mailbox, begin a few feet away from it. You want to start this lesson in his comfort zone where he can still give you a yes answer.

Hold your hand out in front of your horse as a target. I generally offer a closed fist to my horse when I want him to target to my hand. Hold your hand out just an inch or two away from his nose. The more afraid he is, the closer you want to be to him. You don’t want him to have to work so hard for his click and treat that his fear gets the better of him and he shuts down.

When he stretches out his nose even a little to touch your hand, click and treat. Gradually inch your hand toward the mailbox. You’re playing the “touch the goblin” game with him. When horses discover that they can turn the goblin into a goody dispenser, they lose their fear of it.

To get your horse to open the mailbox, first put a carrot inside. Then mount a dowel on the front latch, and leave the door slightly ajar so it’ll open with very little pressure on the latch. Introduce your horse to the mailbox, and click and reinforce him for mouthing the dowel. Then click, reach into the mailbox, and hand him the carrot you had hidden inside.

Close the mailbox, and repeat this step. Your horse will quickly get the idea that the object of this game is opening the mailbox. Close the door tighter so he has to work at it.

Next put a rolled up newspaper inside the mailbox. When your horse opens the mailbox, let him sniff around inside. If he’s an eager retriever, he’ll reach right in and pull out the newspaper. Click and jackpot!

Put Your Horse on a Pedestal
Every lesson you teach your horse has a ripple effect throughout his training. Standing on a platform is so much more than just a fun trick, it’s great preparation for trailer loading and crossing bridges.

One of the foundation lessons in clicker training is teaching your horse to stand on a mat. That’s the preparation for this lesson.

Make sure your platform is strong and sturdy enough to support his weight. Using a target, lead your horse up to your platform. Click and reinforce him for approaching it.

Let him drop his head down to sniff it. You want to encourage interest in the platform. Use your target to guide him up onto the platform. If he puts a foot on the platform, click and treat. If he paws at it, click and treat. This is very much like trailer loading. Give him time to build up his confidence. When he steps up on the platform, click and give him a huge jackpot.

More Target Games
When you’ve taught your horse these tricks, think of some new ways you can use his targeting and retrieving skills. For example, under saddle, toss out a cone. Give him a loose rein and let him retrieve it for you. You can even play basketball on horseback. Throw the ball out, let your horse retrieve it, then point him in the direction of the basketball hoop for a slam dunk!

Why should you bother teaching your horse these tricks? Let me share a story from early in my clicker training experience.

We had a couple of visitors in the barn. One of them glanced into the indoor arena where one of our clicker-trained horses was working. He did a double take and then called his friend over to watch. “You’ve got to see this,” he said. “That man’s playing fetch with his horse! That’s so cool. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

And then he said the part that I really liked. “What a great relationship he has with that horse.” He got it exactly right.

Verbal Cues
We all want our horses to be smart like Mr. Ed. We want to be able to talk with our horses. With the clicker, you can build an extensive vocabulary of verbal cues your horse will understand.

Horses rely on body language for communication. In contrast, we’re a verbal species. We want to tell our horses in words what we want them to do. Horses can learn verbal cues, though many times we think the horse knows our words when in reality he’s really reading our body language.

Verbal cues are taught through classical conditioning. That means the horse learns the cue by association. Here’s the process: In clicker training you get the behavior, you get it consistently, then you attach a cue to it.

For example, when you first taught your horse to touch a target, you didn’t give any cue. Saying “touch” or “target” wouldn’t have helped him understand what he was supposed to do.

In fact, he might have ended up thinking “touch” meant “mug your pockets” since that’s what he was doing at the time. But now that he targets readily, you can give the behavior a name. You can say “touch” just before you know he’s about to bump the target.

It’ll look as though your clever horse has gained an instant understanding of the English language. He’ll eagerly reach out to touch his target, but, of course, he would’ve done that whether you had said anything or not. That doesn’t matter. You’ve set your horse up for success. You gave your cue at a time when you knew for certain that he would perform the behavior.

As you repeat this, the cue “touch” will become so strongly linked to the action that it won’t simply predict the behavior, it will cause it to happen. At this point when you say “touch,” your horse will look around for something to target.

That’s a good beginning. The next phase will be to show him that unless you give the cue, he isn’t to perform the behavior. You can do this by only reinforcing him for targeting when you have given the cue. If he targets off-cue, you won’t click and reinforce him.

This method works, but it can lead to a lot of frustration. At first, your horse won’t understand why sometimes the game works, and other times it doesn’t. He’ll try extra hard to get you to click, oftentimes offering you the very best performance yet. It can be hard not to click him for this great effort, but if you do, you’ve just blown your stimulus control.

Stimulus Control
What is the difference between a trick and a nuisance behavior? Stimulus control. With the clicker, it’s easy to turn behaviors “on.” Cues give us a way to turn them “off” again.

Trick training is a great way to learn about cues and stimulus control. With the target-based tricks I’ve just described, I didn’t worry about establishing a specific cue for each of the tricks you taught. In essence, the prop itself told your horse what to do. If you wanted him to play soccer, you brought out his ball. To control the behavior, you simply took the ball away when you were done playing. That makes all these target-based tricks easy to manage.

But suppose you’d like to leave the soccer ball out where your horse can see it. You only want him playing with it when you give him permission. That’s where cues come in. A cue acts like a green light. It’s a signal you’ve taught your horse that tells him which behavior is most likely to get reinforced.

Ideally, in the absence of the cue, you also want your horse to understand that that behavior is now off limits. You want the behavior to happen when you ask for it and only when you ask for it. That’s called bringing the behavior under stimulus control.

A cue acts like a green light. It says: “You may now do this particular behavior, and I’ll reinforce you for it.” But that’s only half the equation. You may still be getting off-cue behavior. The other half of the process takes stimulus control a step further so your horse only offers the behavior when you ask for it.

In other words, when you set your brush box down on the floor, does your eager retriever try to pick it up, spilling out half the brushes in the process, or does he wait for you to give him a signal to hand it to you? In the first case, you have an entertaining pest, and in the second, a useful partner.

Tricks are easy to teach with the clicker, but they can easily become nuisance behaviors. Saying “yes,” counting, bowing-these are all cute behaviors. That is, until your horse wants to offer them to you all the time. So learning about cues and stimulus control is an important part of trick training.

Teaching in Pairs
A great way to teach your horse the full meaning of cues is to teach behaviors in pairs. If he tries to perform a behavior off cue, you can interrupt the behavior by asking for something else. The cue for each action will clarify when each behavior is appropriate.

You’re using incompatible behaviors to keep things in balance. For example, if you don’t want your horse to retrieve his favorite toy, ask him to back up instead. Click and treat. Now ask him to wait for just a second or two.

You don’t want to expect too much too soon. If you think he can control his eagerness for four seconds, you don’t want to push your luck and go for five seconds. Instead, at three seconds give him his cue to retrieve. In this case, you’ll be strengthening three great behaviors: backing, retrieving, and waiting.

When you train with positives in this way, a cue serves two roles. It becomes the green light that turns on the next behavior. And it also reinforces the behaviors that preceded it.

When you balance retrieving with backing, you set up the following dynamic: Your horse learns that if he backs up and waits, he gets to retrieve his favorite toy. Backing leads to good things. Backing becomes a much more valued behavior, because it opens the door to other things he enjoys. He’ll be all the more responsive to the cue to back up the next time you ask, because you’ve just reinforced it with the green-light cue to retrieve.

This is a great scenario to encourage. Backing is essential for good balance and for great brakes. I want my horse to respond softly and readily to my requests to back. My horse thinks he is at “recess” playing fun games, but in reality I’m working on important lessons I need for great riding performance.

When I teach my horse to retrieve cones and push soccer balls, I am creating a ripple effect that will benefit every other aspect of his training. So have some fun and teach your horse tricks. Soon he’ll become a better equine partner, eager to learn new things.

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