Getting Started with Positive Reinforcement

I'm so glad to see that you're interested in learning how to get started with positive reinforcement safely! Make sure to read the training articles that go along with these sections - starting with "What is Clicker Training?"

This new language will open a world of possibilities and change the whole way you view your relationship with your horse. As you begin positive reinforcement it's important you set yourself up for safety and success in your training. Just like anything we need a strong foundation, a baseline to refer to. I like to work with horses in Protected Contact in our early training, allowing them to be honest, make mistakes and learn safely. This allows me to remain safe without needing to use aversives. Usually I teach the horse to target, put their head down, and back up before proceeding to full contact, but I understand that many feel comfortable and safe using full contact right off the get go. Choose whichever you feel comfortable with.  To prepare for our training we'll want to set the scene in an appropriate way for the behavior we're working on. In these early behaviors we want to work in a quiet, private area, without much distraction. We want to work where the horse is comfortable - not too far from friends, not so close they worry. It also helps to have an alternate food source available while working, either hay or a food producing toy, to help keep the horse relaxed around your reinforcers


Standing Facing Forward

When you begin working in full contact with your horse it's important to teach our horse a safe default behavior to perform around us and food. The horses should be calm and comfortable being fed on contingency, if they aren't this behavior can go a long way to helping them reach this goal - for your safety and their benefit! We'll build this skill up until you can comfortably move around your horse, for brushing or handling with the horse standing relaxed, waiting for their mark and reinforcement. This behavior seems rather silly, you're teaching your horse to do nothing! This behavior helps relax and keep safe the excited horses, but it may feel unnecessary if you have a quiet, easy to work with horse. It's not! This behavior becomes our foundational baseline, the default. Whenever the horse is unsure what to do, confused, or frustrated they can go to this behavior. It becomes even more important as we teach more and more behaviors we can later proof our new cues against this calm standing behavior. Alternating between the two will help the horse learn not to offer behaviors until cued, keeping all those involved safe.


Whether you're working in full or protected contact, targeting is a vital skill to unlocking this new language. Targets can help horses find how to earn their reinforcer much more easily. You can use stationary targets for you horse to learn to stand still. Hand held targets are extremely beneficial for shaping new behaviors. Sending to targets is another valuable way to use to build space, movement and future ridden behaviors. 

Back Up

Teaching a solid "back up" cue is really important for when we work in full contact. Not only does it help keep our horses flexible and limber, it also helps keep us safe with distance. This is an easy behavior to shape with a target and learn to rapidly fade the target early on. This is an important skill for both you and your horse to learn. It's important to only begin fading the target when you're sure the horse is getting the hang of the behavior.  

Shoulders Away

Hips Away

Target Leading

Sending to Target

Target Square

Target Square/Mounted

Head Down

Tacking Up 😉

All the Basics