Clicker Session Setup

There are a few types of clicker training sessions you can do with your horses. There is the essential session of teaching a new behavior, these are short (2-5 minutes), teaching steps towards your goal behavior and putting the new behavior on cue. Then there are sessions where we run the gambit, we rotate through the known behaviors to proof the cues against each other and practice stimulus control on them all. There’s also the fun play sessions, without much thinking but lots of fun movement, following targets, sending to targets, going over or around obstacles, playing chase, etc… There’s also counter conditioning sessions, where we introduce something new or different (particularly health related items) and counter condition it. Then there’s unstructured enrichment, these aren’t training so much as just fun ways to engage the horse’s brain and body.

So you want to teach your horse a behavior, you’re new to clicker training, where do you begin and how do your structure your session? First decide on one behavior you want to teach (this is harder than it seems we often lump many behaviors into one), so make sure you’ve divided the goal into 1 behavior. Then decide how you want to shape this behavior. You can shape the behavior by dividing it into tiny steps, clicking and reinforcing as you progress towards the goal. This is not as hard as it sounds, by arranging the environment we can make this fairly easy. For example, when we teach back up we can start over the fence, the horse will be leaning over the fence to reach you/the food. At some point they will rest back, lean back, or step back. You can shape from here. Using the set up to reduce wrong answers and make the goal behavior easier to stumble on. We can also use previously learned behaviors like targeting, sending to targets, body targets, or the use of obstacles to help encourage the end goal. Another option is to capture the behavior, this isn’t just waiting for the behavior to happen freely, but a test of how well you know your horse. If you want to capture a behavior, know when and why it usually happens, so you can be ready to catch them in the act. For example, if you want to capture lying down, think about when it is they usually roll. After a shower? After their blanket was removed? Knowing our horses’ patterns can help us know what triggers different behaviors, so we can capture them.

Once we have the horse doing the behavior correctly, we want to put it on cue, so we can ask for it whenever we’d like. We do this by providing the signal as the behavior is about to happen in our session. Once it seems apparent the horse has connected our cue with the behavior they’re doing, we can do it off pattern. We’ll begin putting the behavior on stimulus control right away as we connect the cue. Quickly we’ll stop reinforcing the offering of the behavior without the cue. We’ll also begin cuing other behaviors in rotation with the new behavior. If you’ve taught “head down” for instance, you might ask for stand and back up a few times, then head down again. At first keeping the new behavior more often than the others, but soon it just becomes part of your repertoire that you do in your stimulus control behavior rotation sessions. These sessions are short, 2-5 minutes, each time you enter, you mark and reinforce as the horse progresses their way to the goal behavior. Whenever there is a breakthrough or a good step forward, end the session and let the horse think.

When you end the session leave a scattered few handfuls on the floor while you leave. This is extremely important for contradicting the disappointment of you leaving/the session ending. Ending the session without leaving a scatter pile or treat ball can be punishing to the horse (negative punishment). If you’ve just had a breakthrough, that’s the last thing you want! You want this to be a soft time for the horse to come down from their excitement of the game and give them time to process what they learned. Often after a break the horse will take a big step forward in their learning. These breaks can be as short as a few minutes or as long as a few days. Try to only work on one behavior at a time or if you must do multiple, make sure their shaping plan is different enough there’s no confusion. Only begin the next behavior once the last one is fully moved into your rotation. Want to get started with Positive Reinforcement? We have lots of video tutorials on the basics: