I implement many different training methods while working with Minnow, Blitz, Boomer and even Ammo the Dachshund, but I predominantly prefer to use Clicker Training.
Clicker training is the process of training an animal using a clicker as a marker for behavior that will earn positive reinforcement (most often a food reward). Typically the clicker is a small mechanical noisemaker, but some trainers prefer to substitute a tongue click or other marker signal.
One of the challenges in training an animal is communicating exactly when the animal has done the behavior that the handler is attempting to reinforce. The clicker allows for precise timing and clear communication about what specific behavior is being reinforced, and enables the trainer to teach complex and difficult skills to the animal without the use of force or punishment.
I began using clicker training in 2004 with Minnow when I decided to teach him a few tricks. What began as a fun thing to do with my pony developed into a tool to help me communicate with him. Eventually I transferred it over to our riding and I was able to use it to retrain my once nervous and uncontrollable pony to listen to all of my precise cues. Since my beginnings with the clicker I have used it to train all of my ponies as well as my Dachshund, Ammo. While clicker training may not be for every horse and trainer, I have found it to be my favorite method when working with my ponies.
Because of clicker training my animals enjoy working, and the goal of learning new skills and tasks becomes an exciting game to them. One of the major benefits I have found with having clicker trained animals is that it develops thinkers. My ponies are constantly trying to problem solve and figure out exactly what I want them to learn. It has developed their problem solving skills so much that in 2011 I was able to train Boomerang a series of complicated riding maneuvers in a matter of 6 weeks so that we would be able to compete in the Craig Cameron Extreme Cowboy Race. With the help of my clicker he was able to master flying lead changes, roll backs, side passing, backing through obstacles, and even ground tying.
If you are interested in getting started with clicker training, one of the first things you will need is a clicker. You can purchase the Painting Pony Clicker Set HERE.
One of the best ways to introduce your horse to the clicker is by teaching him to target. Keep reading to find out how to teach targeting as well as a few other simple tricks to get you started.
Target training is a wonderful introduction to the clicker for your horse. It teaches him that when he hears the click sound, it means he did exactly what you wanted, and a treat will soon follow.
- Put your horse in a stall or behind a paddock.
- With you on the other side, hold out a target for him to touch. This can be a target wand, cone, ball, or any item your horse can see easily.
- The instant your horse touches the target, click, and give him a treat. Continue this process until you see the lightbulb go off for your horse. You will notice the instant he realizes that every time he touches the target you will click and produce a treat.
- If your horse starts to mug you for treats, step back out of his reach. He will eventually learn that the only way to earn a treat is to perform a task. Soon you will not need a barrier to keep him out of your personal space.
Kick a Ball
Learning to kick a ball can be a great exercise in continuing your targeting work as well as teaching your horse to use all parts of his body. We prefer to use a ball designed for horses from Toys for Horses.
- With your horse wearing a halter and a long lead rope, place him inside a paddock or small enclosure with the ball in front of him.
- Encourage your horse to walk forward by gently guiding him with the lead rope.
- When any part of his hoof or leg touches the ball, click and reward.
- As he begins to figure out that touching his leg to the ball will earn him a reward, start delaying our click until he begins to lift his leg higher providing more of a kicking motion.
- Once your horse has figured out that you want him to kick the ball, add a verbal cue to it such as the word “kick”. Say “kick” then allow your horse to kick the ball, then click and reward. Adding a cue will help make sure that your horse knows to only perform the trick when you give him the verbal cue. Once he has mastered the trick make sure you only reward him when you give the verbal cue.
*If at anytime your horse seems nervous about touching the ball, take a step back and make sure he is comfortable with the ball before continuing on. It might be better to teach him to target it with his nose first, or perhaps letting him live with it in his pasture for a few days. Pushing your horse past it’s comfort zone will only create a distrusting relationship for your and your horse. You want to make the experience happy and positive at all times.
Misty of Chincoteague was known for being able to shake hands with all of her fans. This is a fun trick that can really get your horse thinking.
- Begin by looping a lead rope around your horse’s right front ankle.
- Using your right hand make an exaggerated attempt to shake your horse’s hoof, much the same way you would offer your hand to another person, but with your palm up.
- The first time you ask, likely your horse will not respond. After pausing for a second, using the rope, gently lift your horse’s hoof into the palm of your hand. As soon as his hoof reaches your hand click and reward.
- Repeat step two in an exaggerated manner (giving your horse a second to think about it before pulling the rope) until you notice any slight twitch of your horse’s leg. Even if he just moves slightly, click and reward him.
- As your horse begins to offer you more and more of a leg lift on his own, delay your click even longer, asking him to give you a little more effort every time.
- Eventually you will not need the rope, and you will be clicking your horse when his hoof reaches your palm.
- When you are certain your horse knows what you want you can add the verbal cue “shake” to your trick. Ask the horse verbally to shake, then move your right hand towards his right hoof. Click and reward when his hoof reaches your palm. Make sure once he has mastered the trick that you are only rewarding him for shaking when you have given him the verbal cue.
Congrats! Now your horse can shake hands just like the real Misty of Chincoteague did!
*Make sure children are supervised when teaching this trick. An enthusiastic horse can lift his leg suddenly in an effort to shake your hand.
More information on Clicker Training:
Karen Pryor – Clicker Training (all animals)
Clicker Training Blogs:
*Disclaimer: Clicker Training, and any horse training for that matter, can be a dangerous activity. Painting Pony, Kyley DiLuigi, and our associates will not assume any liability for your activities. This website is designed to provide general information, instruction, and techniques that may not be suitable for everyone.