‘Clicker training doesn’t work for my horse’

The first thought that comes to my mind when a person tells me ‘Clicker training doesn’t work for my horse’ is ‘Why not? Is he sleeping?’ Just kidding. (Klik hier voor de Nederlandse versie van dit artikel).

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Horses can be trained either by using an aversive to reinforce behaviour (negative reinforcement, -R) or using an appetitive to reinforce behaviour (positive reinforcement,+R).

What does the statement ‘Clicker training doesn’t work for my horse’ mean, when someone says that? Does it mean that:

  • The trainer doesn’t understand the concept of +R and therefor is not applying it properly?
  • The horse doesn’t respond to the marker, the clicker?
  • The horse is not interested in the reward the trainer offers?
  • The horse is not paying attention to the trainer and therefor doesn’t respond to the cues and/or clicker?
  • It only seems to works part of the time (with some behaviours)
  • The horse (sometimes) performs ‘worse’ during clicker training


#1 Trainer doesn’t understand the concept
A lot can go ‘wrong’ if the trainer isn’t conscious of what he is doing or doesn’t understand what he is doing and expects a different result. The basic terms to understand are: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcementmarker or bridge signaltimingshaping behaviourproper hand-feeding, cues, reinforcer and learning theory.

#2 The horse does not respond to the clicker
Can your horse hear the marker (the click)? Does he knows what your marker/bridge signal means? It usually takes 30 – 50 repetitions (marker+reinforcer, marker+reinforcer etc.) before the animal has learned that the marker is an announcement of an appetitive.

Does your marker sounds the same every time? A clicker always makes the same sound, therefor it ‘travels’ the same pathways in the brain. If you use a special word, it can take longer for your horse to generalize the marker sound, so it can take a little longer for your horse to respond and repeat the behaviour you’ve marked. If you use different markers make sure your horse has been introduced properly to each of them.

The marker is not (yet) paired associated with an appetitive or the trainer has not yet figured out what the horse considers a reward, see #3.

#3 Horse is not interested in rewards
The key is that the reward must be reinforcing the behaviour. ‘The receiver determines the reward’. If the behaviour is not getting stronger, the reward did not reinforce the behaviour so it wasn’t a real reward.

Pay attention to your horses needs and wants. A reward can also vary in value: a tuft of hay can be reinforcing in winter, but not in Spring when you keep your horse in a field full of juicy grass. It is the trainers responsibility to find out what the horse wants to work for at that moment.

#4 The horse is not paying attention
Why not? Is there something more urgent going on for the horse than the trainers cues? Can the distraction be removed or the horse taken somewhere else to train? Does the horse think he’s in danger? It doesn’t matter if the trainer doesn’t see the danger, for the horse it is real. Is the horse in ‘learning mode‘? Is he relaxed and engaged enough to learn?

Does the horse responds to the marker, see #2? Are the cues clear and fully understood by the horse? Does the trainer keeps the horse involved or is he distracted himself? Is the horse frustrated or maybe has mentally shut down for one reason or the other? Are the rewards reinforcing? Is the proper behaviour reinforced? It is all about timing: you get what you reinforce.


#5 It only seems to works part of the time
The horse is not interested in the ‘rewards’ you are offering that day, see #3. He might be distracted, see #4.  The cue is not yet established in a different context. The horse doesn’t respond well because the training steps are too big, the criterion has been raised to quickly (also known as ‘lumping’). Or your rewarding schedule is too predictable, see #6.

#6 The horse performs ‘worse’ during clicker training
The rewards have lost their value or the reinforcement schedule is too predictable for the horse and therefor the behaviour becomes extinct. In other words: the click doesn’t motivate the horse anymore.

Of course this is only the tip of the iceberg for the many reasons that positive reinforcement aka clicker training doesn’t work for you(r horse). Can you name another reason? Please share in the comments!

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I help horse owners get the results in training they really, really want with joy and easy for both horse and human. I always aim for win-win!
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5 thoughts on “‘Clicker training doesn’t work for my horse’

  1. After my horse ate my clicker, we got along in our work just fine.

    While I agree that clear expectations, acute observation, gaining your horses’ trust and attention, and responding to the immediate situation NOT what you might think ought to be happening, I find carrying a clicker around distracting for me and the horse. It appears to be most helpful as a tool for the human side of the equation to figure out what they are looking at and want as most horses are already doing miles ahead and doing exactly what the humans are communicating with them with the body language and breath. If a clicker helps you develop your own self-awareness, great. But reducing a horse’s ability to read humans to a click is a pity.


  2. Could you please address another ‘reason’ in this article? A friend of mine – a long-time advocate and practitioner of clicker training – has stopped using it on one of her horses and no longer believes it works for every horse, because her horse is so food-motivated (apparently) that he became very frustrated at not just getting the treats, but having to work for them, that he became aggressive and mean and started to act out in bad behaviors, pinning his ears and such when he heard the click, or even when she’d start a session. I hope I’m reporting this accurately. I’m not certain I remember all the details she told me. This is an insulin-resistant horse (Fjord), so he does wear a grazing muzzle to limit his consumption, so the food issue is strong. Can you please address this problem? Thanks! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kris for sharing this. I think the list ‘Why clicker training doesn’t work’ can be endless. It is too bad your friend stopped using +R with her horse. He was obviously so motivated that it became a problem.

      If I would ad this one to the list I also would suggest the following solutions to this problem:
      – the reinforcers are too strong/too high in value and I would recommend lower value rewards (hay/hay pellets/scratches) or anything else that still reinforces the behaviour but doesn’t trigger the frustration/anger.

      – Another reason for his aggression might be frustration and maybe the trainer wasn’t clear when the horse could and couldn’t expect a click & reinforcer. A start-session and end-of-session can help make it clear when to expect treats and when the chances to a click are zero.

      Maybe the horse was very hungry due to his grazing muzzle and his medical condition. Sometimes providing hay during a session in a net or on the ground during training can help prevent food aggression related behaviour.

      -Maybe she didn’t pay attention to his emotions right from the start and she might have reinforced some of the behaviour by clicking and reinforcing. See this post https://hippologic.wordpress.com/2015/11/27/horse-stay-in-learning-mode/
      -Maybe the trainer skipped some important key lessons (the key to success) like addressing safe behaviour around food, see https://hippologic.wordpress.com/2015/11/23/table-manners-for-horses/ and so on.

      Thanks again for addressing this issue Kris. I can totally understand why one would stop using food rewards if your horse becomes dangerous. I think there are many ways to approach this (depending on the real cause of the aggression), maybe someone is helped by these suggestions. Sandra Poppema If she is interested in starting again with clicker training, you might want to tell her she can send me an email at info@clickertraining.ca for a free Skype intake to discuss possible solutions.


  3. You can train (any animal) well without a clicker, and using a clicker is no indication of a good trainer. The clicker is a tool which used ‘properly’ can aid in teaching very precise behaviours.
    You can also ‘clicker train’ without a clicker. Dolphin trainers use a whistle because that is closer to the sounds they use to communicate with each other.
    I do wonder if a ‘clicker’ is the best marker to use with horses? I personally find the sound of clickers quite unpleasant, so tend to just pucker up and whistle (an uprising “whit!”)for my dogs. When I trained goats I used a tongue click. I’ve never (been rich enough to have) had a horse but I believe that it was traditional to train them with tongue clicks??
    The real advantage of these over any noise-making equipment is that you always have it with you 🙂


    • The advantage is indeed that you always have it with you. But people tend to be emotional and will not always make the same sound for the ‘bridge’. We can make training worse if we are not ‘ trained’. I think that if you are complete aware of your emotions and you will always make the same bridge, it would not be a problem. Excuse my English, I’m from The Netherlands 🙂

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