What Is Clicker Training? And What Do I Need To Understand Before I Start?

Clicker training is a tool that uses the principles of positive reinforcement. The horse is rewarded for a desired behaviour. Clicker training is easy for a horse (and owner) to learn: the click marks the desired behaviour and the sound of the click tells the horse two things a) you did the right thing and b) food is on its way.

Food is a powerful primary reinforcer (the animal does not need to learn how valuable it is). Because the food treat follows specific behaviours that are being targeted, these behaviours become more likely to occur in the future. Clicker training is effective because it combines two types of learning: classical conditioning (the horse automatically links the click to the treat) and trial-and-error learning (the horse tries out different behaviours to see what he needs to do to get a treat). Clicker training was based on original work by a scientist called Skinner and popularised for training animals by Karen Pryor. It is very commonly used in dog training and has only reached the world of horse training in a significant way the last 10 or so years.

[Some horses find a good scratch to be as motivating - sometimes even more motivating - than food]

What are the advantages?

Unlike other methods of training horses, this approach means that the horse is motivated to offer behaviours without fear of what might happen if he makes a mistake. As such, clicker trained horses are inquisitive and willing, and clicker training is a rewarding way of learning for horse and owner.

Clicker training can be a very clear way of working with a horse - you mark the exact aspect of a behaviour so he has the opportunity to learn precisely what behaviour you want. Also the horse learns that training sessions are fun and thus it can help to build a strong bond based on trust and positive associations with the owner. For example, you can train your horse that if he approaches a novel object and touches it with his nose then he will be rewarded. When this is done for a variety of objects the horse learns that things he doesn't recognise are not something to be scared of but something to investigate: more than just a trick, it can help to create a positive attitude in a horse. This can be invaluable in training a horse to be, for example, confident when hacking.

Many people are drawn to this method because it is simple, can produce fast results and doesn't train through fear, discomfort or threat.

The impact clicker training can have on a horse is far-reaching. When a horse starts to make decisions - and is rewarded for them - it can be incredibly empowering. The horse slowly learns that he can have his autonomy. For the horse who has spent years being instructed and enforced, this is an initially worrying but ultimately liberating experience comparable with therapy or counselling for humans. The resulant horse is in a psychologically healthier state - providing that the owner desires and can cope with this new, more confident state.

[Clicker training can be transferred to ridden work]

What are the concerns?

Although most behaviourists promote reward-based training and clicker training for some cases, there are growing concerns over its widespread use. These concerns can be categorised into four main groups:
  • Some trainers and behaviourists appear to use clicker training when attempting to solve behaviour problems, rather than addressing the underlying motivations for the unwanted behaviour. For example, a horse can be trained using clicker training to accept a saddle but sometimes he might be reluctant to be saddled due to a physical problem and, instead of this being addressed, the horse is trained to tolerate the pain. This is obviously unethical. Also behaviourists should look at the horse's environment when addressing a behaviour problem - it is important that the horse's basic ethological needs are met such as social interaction, opportunities for natural eating behaviours, an enriched safe environment and so on before any training takes place. Some behaviourists miss out this vital element and jump straight to training the horse to do/not to do something.
  • In the erroneous hope of getting the 'best of both worlds' some trainers use a mixture of methods. For example combining clicker training with methods that are based on application of pressure/release. This can be very confusing for the horse and break down trust between owner and horse due to the horse not being able to predict your behaviour!
  • There can be a tendency to 'over train'. Although clicker training is a method of positive reinforcement some trainers repeat tasks with their horses so intensively for such a long time that the positive benefit of the approach is questionable. The aim is fading the clicks and rewards once the behaviour is established, by means of a variable schedule of reinforcement.
  • Poor training can cause frustration, aggression and inappropriate behaviours. If the trainer fails to notice when a horse is struggling, frustration can result. Some clicker advocates train tricks that are not always appropriate - for example, it can be dangerous to teach a horse to 'kiss' the owner or 'high five'. Many trainers lack the skill of being able to read equine body language to recognise that a horse is frustrated, confused, fearful or in pain and do not cease training when they should. There are numerous examples of bad clicker training on the internet where horses are showing displacement, discomfort, anxiety, arousal and aggression but, because the method is reward-based, people are often not able to see the signs indicating that all is not as good as it seems.
How do I plan my first session so that it genuinely benefits my horse?

Before starting to use clicker training, we strongly recommend:
  • thinking carefully about the affect it could have on your horse - do you want, and can you cope with, a more empowered horse?
  • developing a thorough understanding of basic behavioural science by reading the books on learning theory that we recommend in our Book List and be sure you understand the terms in our FAQ "What Behavioural Science Do I Need To Know?"
  • developing a thorough understanding of what it means to shape behaviour, again, by reading the books and shaping plans we list in our Book List
  • thinking about your timing - good clicker training depends on this - practise 'training' a willing human and/or click a bouncing ball
  • planning ahead - choose some small treats that the horse likes and will want to work for and have enough for 10-15 clicks and a jackpot, get a bum-bag which will serve as a cue to the horse so that he understands treats are available, choose a location for your clicker training so that the horse understands where treats are available (this understanding helps to reduce frustration, arousal etc), choose a target which is not in everyday use, choose cues which are not easily confused with every-day handling (e.g. a touch on the nose as a cue for a "head down" is easily confused with a stroke on the nose)
  • checking that the horse does not find the click scary by clicking at progressively shorter distances from the horse. If the horse does seem to be scared (or if you don't need to do this because you already know that the horse will be scared) choose a quieter click like a biro mechanism, a clicker muffled in your pocket or avoid using the clicker altogether until the horse shows a higher level of confidence
  • think about the behaviours you wish to train - are they unethical or dangerous? Could they inadvertently become unethical or dangerous through incorrect training? The behaviours you choose to train should be enriching for the horse, such as basic target training and exploration of novel objects, a gradual use of obstacles to increase confidence.....
When actually clicker training, we strongly recommend:
  • initially presenting your target from behind a barrier, such as a fence or stable door. This prevents the horse from mugging and keeps your session safer. When you can be sure it is safe to do so, repeat the early sessions without a barrier. The horse will then learn not to mug by recognising, through repeated mugging, that mugging does not achieve anything. The mugging will decrease via a process called "extinction". When using extinction to reduce a behaviour such as mugging, the behaviour will get worse before it gets better as it passes through an "extinction burst". We recommend obtaining professional advice for this stage.
  • keeping the sessions short and simple - present the target close enough that the horse touches it through curiosity and/or by accident, click simultaneously with the touch and reward soon afterwards. Repeat about 10 times, finish with a jackpot (larger handful of treats, perhaps scattered on the ground, or a longer scratch, depending on your chosen reward - some horses may be better with a "toybox", perhaps with food scattered amongst the objects) and remove the bum-bag to indicate "end of session"
  • accepting that different horses learn at different rates. Some horses may be able to touch the target in different positions within the first session; other horses may need the target to be held still for a few sessions before you start to move it around. Keep an eye out for our videos of various horses being introduced to clicker training - sign up to our newsletter for updates.
  • bearing in the mind that the horse typically understands the rules better than the novice trainer. If the horse appears to be bored or uninterested then he is actually more likely to be confused at inconsistent and/or badly-timed training or shut-down and really struggling with the concept of offering behaviour spontaneously. Seek professional help if this is the case.
  • phasing out the click and treats once the behaviour is well-established through the use of treatless clicks and/or variable schedules of reinforcement. Early introduction of variable schedules can help to reduce frustration at their use
  • keeping the sessions pure positive reinforcement and not combining with negative reinforcement
  • improving your imagination so that you can think of ways of keeping the training fun and interesting for the horse, not repetitive and becoming aversive
Indications that you should stop and/or ask professional advice:
  • you have a horse who is shut-down and finds it very hard to offer behaviours
  • your horse is often over-aroused, frustrated, aggressive, displaying an erection or displacement behaviours (e.g. yawning, licking and chewing, pawing....) - if the professional suggests that these are normal and of no concern then we suggest finding an alternative professional
  • you are confused about the difference between behaviour getting worse before it gets better, as in an extinction burst, and behaviour getting worse through incorrect training
  • you and/or your horse are getting stuck on a behaviour and you are not sure how to change it
  • you feel your horse is getting so enthusiastic that you are not sure how to stay safe

[An opportunity to play with toys can be rewarding for some horses, particularly if feed is scattered in between]

In conclusion.......

......although clicker training can be a powerful, effective, tool that is a positive experience for horses and their owners, there are some concerns over its use that need to be brought out into the open and discussed between behaviourists. In attempts to enthuse owners about reward-based training and encouraging them to 'have a go', some professionals are failing to introduce the method to their clients in a responsible way. Although clicker training can form a valuable, sometimes vital, part of a behaviour modification programme, a suitably experienced behaviourist should be involved to give a full consultation, considering all aspects of a horse's management and not just the training. Only then can the true causes of problems be addressed, rather than potentially training a horse to cope with things that shouldn't be asked of him in the first place or training horses who are not prepared for new learning because they are struggling to cope with the way they are managed. The trainer, behaviourist and, of course, owner should have welfare at the heart of everything they do and not be afraid to take a step back from training until the horse is ready. If we all focus on what's in it for the horse, and consider all their needs above our desire to see what horses can learn, there would be many more happy horses out there and they would be better examples of the amazing results that can be achieved using clicker training than there are currently available in demonstrations and videos.