Clicker Training 101: Your first clicker session (including a step-by-step training plan)

When you are new to the idea of clicker training your horse you might ask yourself: How do I start? What do I need? Where do I buy these things? How do I teach my horse to respond to the clicker? These and more questions are answered in this blog to help you get started.

What is clicker training?

Clicker training is a way of using positive reinforcement to train your horse.

Reinforcement means strengthening a behaviour, in other words: you get more of it. The word ‘positive’ in a scientific context means ‘adding’ or ‘present’.

In positive reinforcement you add something to create more behaviour. That ‘something’ must be pleasurable (appetitive) in order for the horse to want it and want to work for it. Win-win. Read more about the basics here (link opens in a new window).

In order to communicate to your horse the exact behaviour you are rewarding for you use a sound (a click from a box clicker or another unique sound that is only used for this purpose) to pinpoint the behaviour you want more of._positive_reinforcement_clicker_training_hippologic

Horses learn pretty quickly to associate the click with a treat and to perform the ‘clicked’ behaviour in order to earn more clicks (and treats).

It is not about the food

Clicker training differs from traditional and natural horsemanship training because it is based on the horse’s choice to cooperate. No force involved, but don’t worry: horses are very willing to cooperate with you. Especially when you use appetitives and a clear way to communicate what you want (with the click)!

Horses really like clicker training once they understand the principle and most horses will bond with you more in training! It might start being ‘all about the food’ but soon is is all about the click and training itself. They love to figure out what you want.

What do I need for clicker training?

You need 3 things to get started:

  1. A plan
  2. A clicker
  3. Appetitives (treats your horse likes).

Where do I buy these things?

A box clicker is almost always found in pet stores in the dog training section. You can also find clickers online. The price varies from $ 2 to $ 15. No need to buy a fancy one. I think ordinary two dollar box clickers works best. Mine lasts for ever (until I loose them).

Treats can be your horses’ normal dinner grain, hay cubes (see picture), alfalfa cubes, home made horse treats (recipe found here), store bought treats, pieces of apple or carrot._give an appetitive HippoLogic

Horse treats are found in equestrian stores, hay cubes/alfalfa cubes, grain and pellets are found in feed stores. Fruits and vegetables at your local grocery store or supermarket. You can even ask for disposable fruit.

A plan is a bit more difficult since you have to come up with one yourself. In clicker training we can our plan a shaping plan because we use the clicker to shape the desired behaviour step-by-step. Read more about shaping plans here.

How do I teach my horse to respond to the clicker?

Start working with protective contact (a barrier) between you and your horse. In this way you can practise the sequence CLICK – REACH FOR A TREAT – FEED.


Working with protective contact

This is very important: always click first, then reach for a treat from your pocket.
If you reach for a treat first your horse will pay attention to your hand instead of paying attention to the click in order to get information if a treat will come his way or not.

Shaping plan

If you’ve picked a goal, for instance teach your horse that ‘click’ means ‘treat is coming’ you write your goal down. Writing down and thinking your strategy trough before you start training makes you more successful. If you don’t plan ahead you get easily stuck and you (or your horse can get frustrated). No big deal, just stop and take a breath to overthink your next best step.

A plan for your first session can look like this:

  • Start with counting out 10 -15 treats first to put in your pocket.
  • Work from his stable or his paddock or pasture and keep a barrier between you and the horse.
  • Call your horses’ name to get his attention. This will let him know something is about to happen. He will learn this in a few sessions, so don’t worry if he doesn’t respond.
  • Make sure you can reach his mouth  through or over the barrier to offer him the food.
  • Think about your sequence: click- reach for food- feed.
  • Click, reach in your pocket and give your horse a treat. If the click startled him, keep your hand with the clicker in your pocket or behind your back to muffle the sound.
  • Repeat several times.
  • Check each time before you click if you can deliver. In other words: check if you still have a treat before you click.
  • After you’ve clicked and gave your horse 10-15 treats give him a break.
  • Show your empty hands and tell your horse the treats are gone. This is called an end-of-training signal

Let your horse do whatever he wants to do and you can refill your treats

According to studies it takes 30 – 50 repetitions for an animal to really associating the click with a treat. In my experience most horses start to really pay attention to what I am doing after 5 – 10 clicks and reinforcers.

This process is called ‘loading the clicker‘: you teach your horse to pay attention to the click because it is an announcer of something pleasurable (the treat/reinforcer).

How do I start clicker training my horse?

If you never clicker trained an animal before you can start best with loading the clicker-exercise. It’s good practise for you as trainer to watch what behaviours your horse is offering and how to handle the clicker and the treats. What is next?

I teach all my students to pay attention to how the horse is taking the treats off of your hand. Is he gentle and only using his lips or does he use his teeth too? So the next step is to go through the 6 Key Lessons (these are your Key to Success in Clicker Training):

  1. Teach your horse your rules about safe hand-feeding, aka ‘Table-Manners for Horses‘ and teach him to stop mugging you.
  2. Teach your horse to be ‘Patience‘ and wait for your next cue without mugging you, standing on your toes or pushing you around.
  3. Targeting is one of the most versatile exercises. You can use targeting to train almost all behaviours you can think of from laughing to  teaching your horse to do travers.
  4. Mat training comes in really handy if you want to train your horse to step or stand on unfamiliar surfaces like pedestals, tarps, trailer ramps or wooden bridges. It is also fun to send your horse from mat to mat at liberty.
  5. Head lowering is an easy exercise to practise your shaping skills. It comes in handy with haltering, bridling and asking your horse to stretch his neck under saddle.
  6. Backing is easily trained with targeting or free shaping. Backing makes your horse safer to be around and it is a great exercise to make your horse more athletic.

Of course you can also start with teaching your horse a simple trick like ‘smile’ or stepping onto a pedestal.

How long does it take to get results?

After a few 5 minute sessions you can expect to see results. Your horse starts to anticipate on the clicker and clearly tries to figure out what you want and what gets you to ‘click and reinforce’ him for.

How often should you train?

The more complicated your goal is the longer it takes to achieve it. Simple tricks or simple behaviours like the Key Lessons (see below) can be achieved in 3 – 10 five minute sessions.

Even with only one day a week a few short sessions you still can get results in training.

Like with every new skill, the more you practise the sooner you will master. Although you can over-do it.

What is the best way to get results with clicker training?

Keep training sessions always short. Multiple short (= few minute) sessions with breaks in between, often give better results than just one very long session.
Make a plan before you start and keep track of your results. Keep it fun for both horse and human!

Clicker training increases the bond with your horse

When you start clicker training your horse, you will notice that your horse starts to pay more attention to you. He starts to like his training more and more now that there is something for him to earn. Something he likes.

Your horse might start coming to you in the pasture or field when he sees you or he even might start to nicker at you to greet you. ♥
The more fun you both have, the stronger your bond will be. Clicker training is a great way to strengthen your bond with your horse and to learn to understand them better.

Clicker training is FUN for both horse and human. Win-win!

Are you new to clicker training?

I am doing market research and I am looking for people who are new to clicker training or people who have started but stopped clicker training their horse. If you want to help me with a 15-20 min interview, that would be awesome! Book your time slot here and I will contact you.

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Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I help horse owners create the relationship with their horse they’ve always dreamt of and get the results in training they really, really want.

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1 thought on “Clicker Training 101: Your first clicker session (including a step-by-step training plan)

  1. Pingback: 3 Reasons to Use Treats in Training | HippoLogic

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