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Posts tagged ‘riding with clicker’

Improve your clicker training from the saddle

Many equine clicker trainers ask me: ‘How do you start clicker training under saddle?‘ and ‘Do you have a video of clicker training while riding?‘ They expect something spectaculair in a video.
In this blog I explain one of the biggest struggle points of taking my clicker training from the ground into the saddle.
I didn’t know this then and I did find a way to coop with it, but if I had know what the ‘forces’ were that I was fighting it would have been so much easier.

Recently I dedicated a blog about starting/using clicker training under saddle, read it here. I was wondering what makes it so difficult to clicker train from the saddle? What is the difference between clicker training from the ground and clicker training while riding? This is one of the reasons why it is hard to start clicker training from the saddle:

Your brain is wired to 'complete' an action

Riding: Traditional/NH vs Positive reinforcement



Tips for Clicker Training from the Saddle

It seems complicated to use positive reinforcement during riding. Most common struggle points are: ‘It’s hard to hold a clicker and the reins in my hands’, ‘Clicker training is useful on the ground, but I don’t know how to use it from the saddle‘ and ‘If you use clicker training in riding you have to stop all the time to give a treat‘. How to address these issues?


Keep it simple!

Positive reinforcement is positive reinforcement, whether you apply it from the ground, standing next to your horse, or when you sit in the saddle. Therefor you have to apply the same rules to set you and your horse up for success: (more…)

The 5 Essentials of Good Riding lessons (4-a/5)

Often when I watch people ride I see struggle. I see a lot of frustration and it seems so difficult to learn how to ride. Truth is, part of it is in the way riding is taught (in general), but it doesn’t have to be like this. Riding and learning to ride can be relatively easy and effortless if the following prerequisites are met. Riding certainly doesn’t have to be the struggle it seems to be for most riders.

5 Things I would like to see more of in today’s riding lessons are:

  • Independent seat
  • Schoolmasters
  • Facts about horse behaviour
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Attention for the horses emotions

Positive reinforcement (+R)

Positive reinforcement is adding something pleasurable in order to get more of the desired behaviour. Example: in riding lessons most of us are taught to pat the horse on the neck in order to reward the horse for their effort. Why don’t we get more enthusiastic horses from this commonly used ‘reward’?

First of all: this is not reinforcing for horses! They don’t like it (…) and therefor it isn’t a reward. Horses have learned that the patting on their neck indicates the end of a certain exercise, for instance trotting around.

If it was reinforcing, they would like to show more of the behaviour in order to earn another reward. I haven’t seen one horse in my whole life that was eager to go back into trot after being patted on the neck. I must admit I have seen green horses occasionally go more forward after being patted on their necks, but that was only because they were turned into flight mode because of it.

Secondly, the timing of this kind of ‘reward’ sucks big time. For instance riders are in general taught to pat the horse on the neck and give it a long rein after a downward transition. Have you ever seen someone being taught to use this ‘reward’ after an upward transition?

I remember I was being told to pat the horse on the neck and giving him a long rein ‘for giving me this good (10 minute long) trot’. It doesn’t make sense scientifically… not to reward during the desired behaviour and often more than 3 seconds after the behaviour. Since riders are not taught to use a bridge signal, the horse doesn’t even know what it was for…

If you pay close attention you can see that it doesn’t cause eagerness in horses, they just ‘endure it’.

A reward has to be reinforcing the behaviour

In order for the horse to connect the behaviour with the reward the reward has to reinforce the behaviour. In other words: the reward has to be rewarding for the horse. A pat on the neck is not, a food reward usually is. And the reward must be given during the desired behaviour or announced with a bridge signal during the desired behaviour.

Reward the riding horse

Why not using a (real) reward to encourage the horse to give us more of a certain behaviour?

I have used a clicker during my riding lessons and it worked amazingly. The rider offered the food reward after each time I clicked. Even riders who never had heard of positive reinforcement or clicker training were open to try it.1_treat

None of my pupils ever said ‘Let’s stop rewarding my horse during your lessons’. On the contrary: they were all pleasantly surprised about the leaps of improvements their horses showed once we introduced a bridge signal and a real reward!

I used positive reinforcement to help improve things like the right head position during transitions, stepping more under their center of gravity with their inner hind leg in bends, teaching smooth transitions walk-canter-walk, ‘duration’ in lateral gaits, standing square and so on.

Adding a reward helps to cummunicate clearly what it is you want from the horse.

Good side effects

The best thing was the side effect of using the clicker on the horse: it helped the rider to develop their feel during a certain exercise. As soon as they heard the click, they knew the horse was doing it right. Which meant they were doing it right! After all, the horse can only do something right if the rider is helping him to perform.

As soon as the riders learned what ‘feel’ they were looking for, they could reproduce it on their own too! I didn’t have to explain anymore what it would feel like in words, but I could  just let them experience it themselves.

Rewarding works so much better than releasing (accumulating) pressure to teach a horse something new. A reward is something the horse looks forward to and engages him in riding. A release on the other hand is often more of a relief and not a reward at all.

[To be continued….]

Sandra Poppema, BSc.
Are you struggling with applying clicker training under saddle? Visit my website to book an online consult. I will be honoured to help you and your horse out. I’ve 2 decade experience with teaching equestrians to ride and train their horses in a horse-friendly way.

Read more in this series The 5 Essentials of Good Riding lessons

Part I: Independent seat
Part II: Schoolmasters
Part III: Facts about horse behaviour
Part IV-b: Positive reinforcement (riders)
Part V: Attention for the horses emotions

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How to… train for a dressage test with clicker training

Dressage riders who use positive reinforcement have asked me: ‘I can’t click and reward my horse during a dressage test. So how can I practice a test and still use clicker training?’

Or they say: ‘I don’t want my horse to stop in the middle of the test because he expects a treat’ or ‘He stops because he is used to a click and treat every few minutes’ or ‘If I don’t click and treat often he stops and gives up trying’.

One possible solution to prevent this is to use ‘back chaining’.


The rider has to memorize the test. If you are a visual learner you can use a dressage-test-white-board.DIY_dressage_test_board_by_hippologic_2015

If you are a practical learner you can memorize the test by walking it yourself. Make a little arena on your lawn or in your living room with letters you’ve printed out and walk the test several times until you know it by heart.


Once you know what to do you want to practice with your horse. The expression ‘chaining’ in positive reinforcement training refers to splitting the behaviour into smaller steps and train every step separately. Each step is one link of the chain.

After you practiced each link separately, you can start pairing two links together before clicking and reinforcing. If that goes well add another link of the chain before that. This is how you make a behaviour ‘chain’.

Back chaining

In ‘back  chaining’ you also start training every exercise (link of the behaviour chain) separately. It doesn’t matter in what order. Once the horse knows all the separate steps you can start ‘back chaining’. Start to reinforce the last exercise in your chain of exercises.

Almost every dressage test ends with ‘A: Down center line, X: Halt, salute, leave the arena in free walk’.

In back chaining you start with this last exercise (free walk and exit the arena). Train the free walk consciously: click and reinforce right after leaving the arena. You can’t click and reinforce during the test, so you have to do it after the test.

Then you add one exercise before the last one (X: Halt, salute) leave the arena in free walk, click and reinforce these two links. Then add a third link before ‘X: Halt, salute’ and so on.

The power of back chaining is that your horse will anticipate and he will learn what to expect. The last part of your chain becomes very predictable and easy because it is always the same. It only becomes longer because the trainer adds exercises ahead.

In this way your horse doesn’t expect a treat during the test, but he will know at the end will be a tasty reward waiting.

The chain can also become a reward in itself: you have reinforced the last link so many times it has a really positive and strong association with something pleasurable in the horses’ brain.


Possible pitfalls

If you are too predictable in your use of your bridge signal and or too predictable in the rewards you offer and the reward schedule you are using, back chaining, can backfire on you. You get the opposite result of what you want: a horse that performs worse instead of doing the best he can.

Keep in mind that you need to vary your reward schedule and your reinforcers in order to keep your horse motivated. Don’t be afraid to experiment with back chaining.

As always: start small, reward big.

Dressuur-amazone Annemarie Sanders-Keyzer tijdens de Olympische Spelen in Seoul 1988

Sandra Poppema
For tailored advise, please visit my website and book a personal consult today!

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