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What is equine clicker training
by Katie Bartlett



How do you obtain behaviors with clicker training? Here is a brief overview of some of the ways that I find myself using most frequently with horses.

Capturing is selectively reinforcing one of the behaviors that animal is already doing naturally. Lying down is an example of behavior that can be captured with some timely clicks.

Romeo lying down in the round pen  Romeo rolling  Romeo getting up  Romeo getting a treat
Romeo lying down: a combination of capturing and free-shaping (see lower). I wanted a prospective guide horse, Romeo, to be comfortable lying down when he spent time with me in the house. I originally captured lying down in the round pen, as shown on the pictures above. Romeo got the idea and started offering lying down more often. That gave me an opportunity to study the sequence of behaviors that led to lying down: sniffing the ground, circling while sniffing, picking up hind legs and lifting them up high, buckling at the knees, and finally going down.

Romeo sniffing the floorRomeo lying down in the houseWhen we were in the house, I free-shaped Romeo to sniff the floor and to start turning circles. That did the trick: Romeo started thinking about lying down in the house. But he was a little hesitant. By clicking for each successive step in the sequence, we finally got the goal behavior. The photos below only show the beginning and the end of the sequence: I could not click and take pictures at the same time!

For a while, I played with capturing sitting doggie-style, a stage of getting up from the recumbent position. Once, I very fortunately remembered to use capturing in a situation that was getting out of control: I was on a horse who was trying to rear up, spin around, and bolt for the barn. It occurred to me to click the fleeting instances when his front feet were on the ground, and after a few clicks, he was back in a thinking mode and responding to me.

Fox standing at the back of the stall with head downFree-shaping is creating the goal behavior through a series of successive approximations, whereby the animal is reinforced for every small increment in which its behavior is approaching the goal that the trainer has in mind. The animal is not cued in any way and no prompts are used. Free-shaping is an extremely powerful tool. Since the horse has used his own cognitive skills to get every step leading to the goal behavior, he ends up really “owning” the resulting behavior and will offer it frequently as a “default behavior”. I learned to think very carefully before free-shaping anything. Free-shaping is fun for both the horse and the trainer; it is easy to get carried away by all the cool things you can do and forget that the horse will offer this behavior to you and others. After getting bumped in the face a few times, I realized that shaping Arrow to "give me a kiss" was not such a great idea afterall. First and foremost, the behavior needs to be safe. I find backing and head lowering fun to shape and oh so useful in numerous situations.

What really illustrated to me the power of free-shaping was watching Alexandra Kurland casually shape Romeo, a prospective guide horse, to “park up” to the handler in a “heel” position in the course of one day. She had him on a "leash" while giving a clinic and simply clicked him every time he moved his hips to the right, until he was aligned with her. Right there, this became his default behavior. Great for a guide horse!

Romeo with Renata  Romeo parked to the handler
Left: Romeo's owner, Renata, is reinforcing Romeo for staying with her in a "heel" position the day he learned to park up to the handler. Right: a few weeks later, Romeo parking up to me at liberty during his play time in the round pen.

I later tried it with big horses and liked it as a good automatic reset. Until one day, when one of my trainees tried to park up to her massage therapist, making him jump back in alarm. Oops! I had not realized that to anyone who was not "in" on what she was doing, the sudden movement of her hips looked, for all the world, just like a preparation for a kick. Realizing my faux pas, I put parking up on cue and stopped reinforcing it when offered in the absence of the cue.

The photos below show an example of using free-shaping to overcome fear.

Ogeechee scared of the drain   stepping on the drain   clikc and treat for stepping on the drain   standing on the drain
Free-shaping for overcoming fear, pictures taken in 2007. Ogeechee felt that the drain was unsafe to be around, let alone step on. His fear of drains made hosing him off or even walking through the barn problematic. In this sequence, I reinforce any inquisitive behavior towards the drain. He catches on and volunteers to step on it with one foot. On the last photo, he is still unsure but is standing on the drain with two feet. I had not influenced his decision in any way, except reinforcing the behavior he was offering of his own free will. I also used what Alexandra Kurland calls "microshaping", free-shaping of minute movements of individual muscles, to have Ogeechee voluntarily walk into the trailer in a scary situation where he refused to respond to any trailer-loading cues he knew.


On the lighthearted side, free-shaping just for fun.

cat stretch fetch2 holding a hula-hoop


Ogeechee tracking a moving targetTargeting is conditioning an animal to bring part of its body in contact with a presented object. A widely used variation of targeting is touching an object with the nose. Targeting itself is taught by capturing and/or shaping. Once learned, it becomes an indispensable and versatile tool. Targeting can be used to reinforce other behaviors, to play interactive games, and to obtain new behaviors, such as leading, head lowering, trailer loading, and walking over obstacles. Below are some examples of targeting and its uses.


      recall1 recall2 recall3               recall4 recall5 recall6
          This sequence shows the use of targeting for recall. I present my hand as a target, and Romeo leaves the mounting
          block and comes to me. In the last photo, I click him as he touches my hand.

Stationing, such as standing on a mat or board, is also a type of targeting: targeting of feet to an object.

Arrow standing on the matFox standing on the matLeft: Arrow could walk off and join other horses, but he shows that he wants to keep playing with me by waiting on the mat while I fetch his bridle. Right: Fox finds a mat to park on and stays there while I sweep the grooming area.

Targeting is a wonderful tool for helping a horse overcome the fear of being touched around head, ears, and eyes.

I present my hand as traget for Fox to touch his ear to Fox touches the base of his ear to my hand Fox puts his ear in my handFox voluntarily puts his ear in my hand. When we started working on this, his ears were so sore from blackfly bites that he wouldn't let anyone touch them. Targeting let him control the degree and duration of contact. Eventually, he allowed me to treat his ears with fly repellent. As his ears healed, he rediscovered the pleasures of a good ear rub. We practice this behavior to keep it current for the next fly season.

Pressure and Release in combination with click and treat. When teaching behaviors through this "hybrid" method, the click initially coincides with release. Subsequently, the release is always given promptly, but the click can be withheld until the horse offers more of the behavior. For example, I requested a give of the jaw with the rein and released when the horse responded. If he maintained his head position after I released the rein, I will click and treat. Gradually, I will increase the duration of behavior by further delaying the click. When we clicker train, it is important to understand what constitutes clicker-compatible application of pressure and take care to make sure it never turns into something that the horse finds threatening, painful, or distressing. Read more here about clicker-compatible use of pressure.


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