You Can Clicker Train Horses?

Clicker training is a training technique that ‘works’ with any animal – from fish to human, or as Karen Pryor has said, “If the animal has a brain stem and eats, it can be clicker trained.”  There is no doubt that horses meet both of these criteria.  So, horses absolutely can be trained using clicker training.

Having said that, there are some barriers to success with horses.  One is, due to their size and sometimes volatile behavior, they can be dangerous.  Not necessarily on purpose, but safety must be considered at all points.  Whereas, you can interpret ‘ignore undesirable behavior’ (a basic tenant of clicker training) quite literally with a dog and let him jump on you while he figures out that sitting is the only behavior that gets rewarded, with a horse, you need to be a lot more careful.

Second, as easy as clicker training is to start, people often get stuck at a variety of points mainly due to not having a clear enough picture in their head about their destination and the path they plan to use to get there.  If your goal is riding, this means you may need to spend a lot of time studying traditional methods in order to be able to find the optimal intersecting points.  There really isn’t any way (that I’ve found) of getting around the need to develop a good seat if riding is in your plan!

Finally, I want to point out that clicker training is not a short cut.  Sometimes, certain things will come more quickly because with positive reinforcement it is possible to make things ever so much CLEARER to the horse.  However, in reality, most training still “takes the time it takes.”  Some people worry that clicker training (thinking it is a ‘short cut’) would allow you to cover up problems that shouldn’t be covered up.  Truth is, if you are paying attention, and understand horse ethology, as any good trainer would be expected to do, this won’t be an issue.  Listen to the horse and he will tell you how he is feeling.  Real training progress can only happen when the horse is in a positive learning frame of mind.  That isn’t possible if the horse is not fundamentally “OK.”  And, in fact, if you disregard these signs, it will all come back to bite you.  (I’m thinking Blackfish right now.)

One of the best reasons to explore clicker training is because the practioners I’ve encountered are some of the most insightful, creative and interesting people I’ve ever known.  So, what is not to love?? 🙂

Below are some links to articles and videos that may provide some perspective and inspiration.

Clicker training a pig (first targeting lesson)

Clicker training a cat

Clicker training a chicken (a complete behavior – just one click and treat at the end)

Clicker training a fish (note the use of a light as the ‘click’)