Clicker Training: Humane, Effective and Highly Suggested


painted horse brown and white with bareback pad
Clicker training taught Lilly to accept a bareback pad without fear or the need for restraint.

It took me almost 20 years into my career with horses to discover clicker training. But now that I have, I'll never turn back, as it is without a doubt the most humane and the most effective method I've come across.


If you're not familiar with this somewhat obscure method, I'll explain briefly, but also would refer you to this website which does a great job of going more in-depth.


Clicker training, in essence, uses the sound of a clicker (which can be with an actual device, or a sound from your mouth) to mark a desired behavior that horse does, which is then followed by a reward (in behavioral terms, positive reinforcement). For example, if I ask my horse to back up and she then complies, I make a clicking sound with my mouth at the exact instant that she steps backward, and then follow up with a piece of carrot. Over time, I can give her a reward after she's taken two steps, and then three, and so on - thus rewarding an increasingly improved behavior. The clicker helps the horse to pinpoint the exact behavior that they're being rewarded for, which helps them to learn to repeat that behavior when asked in the future. The system relies on what's called operant conditioning, or the horse's ability to learn that if they execute a certain behavior, they receive a reward (or punishment).


There are some people out there who would say that this method "spoils the horse", because it involves treats. But I had a mentor once who referred to the treat as "payment", and I think that's the best way to think of it. After all, horses do not choose to be domesticated or to do most of the things we ask of them - so don't they deserve reward for everything we force them to do? I wholeheartedly believe that it is significantly more humane than the methods of restraint most equestrians turn to. It gives the horse a choice: "If I do this, I get a treat, but if I don't, then I don't get a treat". It enhances the horse's well-being, makes certain tasks far less odious (catching for the farrier, vet, etc.) and it's also highly effective. I have found that there are few horses who will turn down the chance to earn a piece of apple or a cookie, even if it requires them to do something they don't necessarily enjoy but is not perceived by them to be harmful or frightening.


For example, my mare Lilly (photo above) was nearly impossible to catch by her owner, resisted a halter, and threw people off who tried to ride her. After I bought her, I started training her using a clicker and within a couple of months, she was following me at liberty across the 16-acre pasture, standing to allow me to place the halter on and accepting it all by not trying to run away. She had learned through a clicker training process that allowing me to do these things resulted in carrot or apple pieces, and those rewards were valuable enough to her to comply. We recently started working with a bareback pad, which I purposefully held off on until she was 100% comfortable with the halter because I knew it had negative associations from her previous riding experiences. Within 5 minutes in our first session, Lilly allowed me to place the bareback pad on her back - completely at liberty and without restraint.


I could have used more traditional training methods with Lilly. I could have just forced a halter on inside of a stall or feeding pen, had someone hold her and cinched the bareback pad on, allowing her to just habituate to it. This is what humans have done for centuries, right? But that creates an even more negative association for the horse, who now sees a halter or saddle pad or saddle and associates it with something unpleasant. It makes it that much harder to catch the horse and handle the horse, each and every time. In fact, I believe that's why Lilly didn't like these things in the first place. Had I done what's traditional, I would have merely cemented these fears and dislikes and made her even harder to handle. But I went the opposite way, showing her that these things can actually have pleasant rewards (behavior professionals call that counter-conditioning). Now, she wants to participate because it means something yummy is coming her way.


Clicker training creates more willing partnerships that only strengthen over time. It's highly effective in rehabilitating unwelcome behaviors (running away, etc.) and in counter-conditioning for horses that have adverse reactions or fears in daily handling.



Wondering if clicker training can help you with your horse? Email me at cassidyweyel@gmail.com - I'd love to answer your questions and be of service.