Do I need to switch over to 100% Clicker Training? Or can I do both?

When people start using positive reinforcement correctly, they’ll soon notice that their horse is more enthusiastic and more engaged in their clicker training than in their other training. Trouble starts…

Starting with Clicker Training

At first most people choose a fun or easy behaviour to teach. Maybe they start with some trick training and before they know it, they have a very engaged horse. Their horse has discovered that he ‘suddenly’ (in his eyes!) gets treats! Yes, of course that get his attention! He wants more!

Struggles due to Clicker Training

  • Your horse starts to mugging for treats or is very focussed on them and can’t concentrate on anything else
  • He starts to show off his new tricks (or behaviours), even when not asked. This can be annoying, distracting and sometimes potentially dangerous (an un-cued Spanish Walk during grooming for instance)
  • Your horse stops doing what he was doing, because he expects a treat and he’s performing less
  • He offers less quality behaviours once you stop offering treats. Treats can become a bribe and no one likes that, so most trainers stop giving treats and then the horse doesn’t understand why the ‘system’ is broken.

Teaching Your Horse the Principles of Positive Reinforcement

When you teach your horse the Principles, you give him clarity and you prevent a lot of frustration.

How you can help your Horse

  • Teach your horse to pay attention to the click. It’s the click that predicts the reward, not your hand in your pocket. When that happens and he starts mugging: click before you reach for a treat.
  • Teach him an End of Session signal, so that there will be no doubt about when and when not to expect food rewards
  • Put behaviours on cue as soon as they are 90% solid and then stop clicking and offering treats for spontaneously offered behaviours. This way your horse starts to pay attention to your cues and stops offering the newly trained behaviour spontaneously all the time. This prevents frustration in your horse
  • Fade out clicks once the behaviour is solid and on cue
  • Change from 100% reinforcement schedule (reward slighted try) to intermittent or variable reward schedule (only best behaviours get reinforced)

Do I need to switch over to 100% Clicker Training?

When people run into struggles like above, they get hesitant to implement (more) positive reinforcement (R+) in the rest of their training.

I would like to say: solve the struggles you encounter first, so you get confident in your skills. Then decide if you would like to use clicker training in other areas of your training.

I like R+ very much, because it’s really a good two-way communication with your horse. Trainers have to listen, otherwise they won’t get the results. When the horse is not doing what they, want they have to do a little detective work: why isn’t the horse doing what you want? Doesn’t he understand it (are you making the steps too big? That’s called lumping), is he nervous or fearful (how to make him calm), are you clear? And so on.

You don’t need to switch over to 100% clicker training in order to have a good relationship with your horse. I will share how you can do both, but first I would like to explain why you can use traditional/NH with clicker training together. Something you see more and more.

Don’t mix R- and R+!

I don’t recommend mixing R- (negative reinforcement) and R+ in training one behaviour.

Why not: understanding ‘motivation’

There is only one motivation at play: it’s either positive reinforcement OR negative reinforcement.

The horse either does the behaviour because he wants something: an appetitive. This is R+. Or he does something to avoid an unpleasant consequence: an aversive. This is R-.

When we would use pressure to ask our horse to lower his head, it’s the need to avoid pressure that makes him do so. Giving your horse a click & treat on top of that doesn’t change the fact that he’s behaving in order to avoid something really unpleasant that you are applying! No matter how big the food reward afterwards is: you have just taught your horse to respond to negative reinforcement.

Confusing your horse when mixing R+ and R-

In positive reinforcement we:

  • Encourage the horse to offer behaviour
  • Want the horse to take initiative (we can only reinforce after the behaviour)
  • Add a cue once the behaviour is trained
  • He horse expects something really pleasant to happen when he’s offering behaviour. This is a mental start that makes him feel good

In negative reinforcement we:

  • Want the horse to respond to us and do ‘nothing’ unless we tell him to do something (usually the horse’s initiative is systematically punished in the past)
  • The horse must wait for our command (pressure)
  • so that we can release it (reinforcement!)
  • The anticipation on the aversive, becomes the command. The horse responds before the aversive is applied: He feels a light pressure from your leg and anticipates already on the aversive that will follow when he won’t move forward. This is a mental state: expecting something unpleasant to happen.

When we add appetitives (things the horse wants, like a treat) after something unpleasant has happened (aversive in order to make the horse do what you want), the horse can become really confused.

It can happen that the treat becomes ‘poisoned’. The connection of enjoying the treat can become so intertwined with the aversive that he wants to avoid, that he really gets confused. When that happens, trust disappears.

Example: Going to the Dentist

Imagine you need to the dentist. You’re scared because your teeth hurt and feel nervous about what the dentist might do to you.

In positive reinforcement the trainer would give you something wonderful (compliment, money, cookie) when you’re willing to say the word ‘dentist.

Then make it a bit more challenging and give you something worthy when you would call the dentist to make an appointment (you don’t have to go yet!).

Every step towards the goal behaviour (lying in the chair with your mouth open and be able to relax and let the dentist do his job to help you). Receiving the appetitives makes you feel good! Going to the dentist when you want, makes you feel in control and makes it not so bad. Right?

When you would use negative reinforcement the trainer would apply an aversive (pook you in your ribs) until you say the word dentist. Now the fearful word is also connected to a physical feeling: the poking in your ribs.

Next time the trainer wants you to pick up the phone. You’ll be poked until you do so.

Also for making the appointment you’ll be poked in your ribs until you’ve done it.

By the time you are in the dentist chair a lot of aversive things happened that made you go there. These are now associated with the dentist. You’re in the chair because the trainer made you. How would you feel? Confident? Relaxed? Would you like it?

Using R- first and adding R+ would be like the second example. Only you would get a treat every time you would listen to your trainer.

I truly believe that it wouldn’t make the aversive less aversive because the trainer would apply more when the learner wouldn’t listen (that’s the principle of R-: the aversive *must* be aversive or arouse aversive feelings in order to make it work)!

Receiving something wonderful after something bad happened consistently (poking in your ribs) doesn’t make the bad feeling go away or make it less. It will do something else: It will make the wonderful experience of receiving an appetitive change! You wouldn’t care about the money/the cookie/the compliment after you’ve been poked in your ribs to get in the dentist chair! You would happily give up the good in order to avoid the bad (self preservation). The reason you took action was because of the aversive (R-)!

How to use Positive and Negative Reinforcement in training

When you start clicker training and seeing results, you might be worried that you need to do everything with R+. I don’t think you need to.

I do recommend using either using R+ to train a behaviour or R-. Don’t combine them when you train one behaviour. Give your horse clarity when to expect aversives (riding, in the arena etc) and when to expect appetitives (trick training, grooming). Be clear!

Do you struggle with this? Book a free connection call and we can talk about how I can help you get clarity in clicker training. No one switched over to clicker training in a day! All their horses turned out great!

When you’re ready to do more with clicker training, join our community!

Need help training your horse?

Are you a compassionate horse owner who wants to build a strong friendship with your horse? Would you like to understand your horse better and help your horse to understand YOU better? Get access to many online clicker training courses and a fabulous, supportive R+ community in our HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy. Check out the link!

Not sure? Start with a free clicker training assessment to get taste of what it feels like to work with me. When you have a specific struggle that you want to overcome, don’t hesitate to contact me. In this assessment you’ll discover what’s holding you back from accomplishing the things you want with your horse. After our conversation you’ll know exactly what to do, in order to move forward towards your goals.

Book here

Happy Horse training!
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc., founder of HippoLogic & HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy

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Sandra Poppema, BSc
Founder of HippoLogic
Enhancing Horse-Human connections through clicker training

Another useful tool in horse training

Of course we all know how valuable a training journal is, I wrote several blogs about the subject. There is another powerful tool that gives you insight into your own training method.

Cue list

Have you ever made a ‘cue list’ of all the commands you use for your horse? It can be very insightful to see.

The first time I made one I discovered I had two different voice commands for trot. My walk-trot transition had the voice cue ‘Trot!’, while I used ‘Whoa-trot’ or ‘Whoa’for the canter-trot transition. So ‘trot’ had already two different commands.

I know exactly how this happened, it was initiated by my pony. I started with using a ‘slow down’ sound before I cued for trot from canter. He started to anticipate on that sound and I anticipated over time to drop the ‘trot’ cue altogether in the down transitions.

How many cues do you use?

Another insight I got from this exercise was that I was amazed that my pony knew over 30 cues in total. My current horse Kyra knows even more than 30.

_cue-list_hippologicIf you make a list (or use the download I made for you) don’t forget to write down where you are positioned in relation to your horse. Are you standing next to the left shoulder  or right in front of your horse when you give the cue, do you use your hands, are you standing up? Your body language supports your voice commands.


If you think of your cues you can also see what voice commands sound similar or where your body cues might be the same. It is also helpful in coming up with new voice cues.

If you are running out of voice cues, start using cues in a different language. French, Japanese or Dutch.

Use multiple languages if you’re running out of ideas

When I got Kyra I started all her trick training cues in English. All the common cues were Dutch. I figured since we live in The Netherlands I wanted her to know the common cues like stand, walk, trot. I didn’t want to use Dutch words for her trick training so I used another language. My voice cues play an important role in Kyra’s training. I used to ride with horse and carriage and in driving the voice commands play a crucial role in communication.

Now we live in Canada and the standard voice cues are in Dutch, while the trick training cues are all in English. At liberty I use French voice commands.

How many cues have you taught your horse?

Download your FREE cue list (Riding-Groundwork_Trick Training).

Sandra Poppema
Are you interested in online personal coaching or do you want to sign up for the next  online course ‘Set Your Equestrian Goals & Achieve them‘, please visit my website


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Clicker training 101: Introducing and using cues

Positive reinforcement training is all about giving a reward to reinforce the behaviour you want more of. The key word is giving. If you have never used a bridge signal before, you start with the simple act of giving. In return you will get your horses’ attention. Then ‘training’ can begin.

Introducing a bridge signal (click)

When you introduce the clicker or another bridge signal to your horse, you start with just clicking and giving rewards. No strings attached. After 30 – 50 repetitions (often sooner) of click = reward, the horse will try to figure out what made you give the treat and if he can influence this by his behaviour. In other words: he will start trying different behaviours in order earn a treat. He is ‘asking’ you what you want from him!


Target stick

You will notice that it is very easy to teach your horse new behaviours and within a few clicks he is offering you his new trick more and more consistently.

Let’s take targeting as an example. You want to teach your horse to touch the target stick with his nose on cue. You start with presenting the target stick (a stick with a ball attached on the end) to your horse.


In the beginning your criteria are low: it doesn’t matter where he touches the target stick as long as he touches it. If you want to set it up for success, you make the desired behaviour  (touching the target stick near the target & touching the target itself) much easier than the less desired behaviour (touching the stick near your hand or touching your hand). So that’s why you start by working with a barrier in the beginning.

Introducing a cue

Once your horse is offering the desired behaviour consistently you can add a cue. In this example: your horse is touching the target predictably and he knows that touching the stick isn’t getting him rewards.

You might have worked with a training cue , e.g. presenting the target stick to your horse is a cue in itself. The horse might have associated specific conditions and consider them as cues we are not even aware of. Maybe you are always in the same place (stall, with a barrier) or at the same time of day when you were working with the target stick.

Temporary (training) cue

Sometimes this temporary cue (presenting the target) is not a very useful cue in other circumstances and then it its time to introduce an ‘official cue’. You don’t want your horse to touch the target stick all the time… It would be rather annoying if he puts his nose to the target whenever he sees the stick. Your horse can become very frustrated if you click offered behaviour sometimes, but would click it every time. That’s why you need a cue. The cue means ‘you can start earning rewards now’.

Changing cues: from temporary cue to final cue


So if your horse is offering to touch the target consistently it is time to introduce an ‘official (final) cue’ e.g. the verbal cue ‘Touch’. You start by using the new cue before the ‘training (temporary) cue’.

New cue -> old cue -> behaviour.

Horses will quickly anticipate this and when he starts acting on the official cue you capture his behaviour with a click.

After some repetitions where you can click & reward after the behaviour occurred after you have given the new cue you can raise your criterion.

Be consistent

Now you only click & reinforce when you have given your final cue for the behaviour. If your horse acts on the temporary cue or offers the behaviour spontaneously you don’t reinforce it. This is the final step in training a behaviour.

You might notice, because you changed the criteria and he doesn’t get reinforced so easily, that your horse will try harder to make you click & reinforce. You might see a duration in touching the target or something else you want to reinforce.

It is important to be consequent: final cue + behaviour= click and reinforce, spontaneously offered behaviour does’t lead to a click anymore in this stage of training.

If he tries really hard and you see improvement in the behaviour take advantage and simply give your horse a chance to earn a click by offering the new cue to him. He will learn to pay more attention and figure out quickly when he can and when he can’t expect a reinforcer.

You don’t want to frustrate your horse in training. One way is to offer another behaviour that is already on cue and alternate 2 behaviours so that you give your horse a chance to be successful.

Final step of training a behaviour

The final step in the process of teaching a behaviour is to use the new cue in different circumstances. If your horse performs well in different situations, he has generalized the cue. Well done!

Context shift


Changing context: now Leon holds the target and gives the cue Touch while I handle the clicker.

A horse learns a certain behaviour in a certain context. Therefor it’s best to start training new exercises always in the same spot, for instance the round pen where you have the advantage of working with protective contact (a barrier).

If you want to test your new cue you have to shift one or more of the conditions (the context) your horse was learning a specific behaviour in. Now you ask to touch the target without a barrier between you two, or you ask it in the outdoor arena instead of the round pen or at a different time of day and so on.

This will ask the horse to adjust and generalize and ignore certain ‘cues’ in the context and pay more attention to others, your new cue. Sometimes a horse seems to lose all his skills in a new context because the cues he had paid attention to are not there anymore. Always lower your criteria temporarily if you change the context of learning, so your horse will gets his confidence back quickly.

Join the Clicker Training Academy if you want to improve your clicker skills

What is the HippoLogic CTA? It’s an online place where you can learn to train every behaviour you have in mind with R+. We have a small, all-inclusive community in which students can thrive and develop.

  • Develop your skills faster with HippoLogic’s proven training system, the Key Lessons
  • Give your horse consistency and clarity in training to built trust
  • Super affordable
  • Enjoy the support of our positive community

Join the HippoLogic Clicker Training Academy for personal advice and support in training your horse with positive reinforcement. The first 20 founding members get an additional 60-minute coaching session with me for free (value $ 97).

Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
Horse training for women who love their horse


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