Teaching a Horse to Target

All this talk of attraction and why targeting works so well and I haven’t explained how to target. The process is a weird combination of being technical and observant. There are a few rules for the human to follow, but the rest is simply watching your horse to gauge his interest. For me, the moment is absolutely magical when I see a horse’s eyes widen, his ears perk forward and I feel him say, This is great game. I know how to play it and I’m good at it. Let’s play again!

By the way, there are so many fabulous explanations out there and in the event my explanation leaves you wanting, a search for ‘equine clicker training’ will yield great results. Feel free to suggest any favorites you find and I’ll add them to the “Good Becoming Normal” list of videos and sites.

I’ve found that at first glance the steps and the process of teaching a horse to target can appear overwhelming. It could be described as having a very steep, but very short learning curve. It’s super powerful and you’ll want to get the steps so they are logical to your horse. But I guarantee if you go through the process just one time you’ll say, That was easy. And fun! I want to teach another horse.

Throughout the process of teaching, my modus operandi is,  How can I make this object so alluring that my horse will want to touch it?

For me it’s all about association. If a horse associates an object with something wonderful, it will want to touch it and follow it. This was one of the very first lessons it learned as a foal. Mama was that something wonderful. She was warm, smelled good and was tasty to follow.

This also restores a horses power in the sense that it realizes something it does, some action it performs, earns it something that feels good. I believe it gives a horse a voice. B.F. Skinner would say it’s making a horse operant, as in operant conditioning, allowing the horse to be the operator of its environment.

I say it gives a horse the chance to move toward something that feels good (attraction) instead of away from something that feels bad (pressure).

Here are my four main steps to teach a horse to target:

  1. Decide on an object for your horse to touch.
  2. Decide on a location to introduce the object.
  3. Teach click means treat.
  4. Teach the horse that something you do, earns you something you want.

What to Target?
The first step is choosing the object. I like things that interest or smell good to a horse. I’ve used supplement lids and then later duct taped them to a crop to create a target stick. I like the object to be large enough for the horse to see while it is in front of its nose, and pleasant to touch. I’ve used large, bright yellow auto sponges but they don’t hold up well if a horse gets the munchies.

I don’t start out with a target stick, because too many horses have unpleasant associations with anything that resembles something they could be whacked with. I lean toward the supplement lid, a tightly folded towel, or one of my favorites is a tiny rubber bucket. The tiny rubber bucket is a dream for teaching targeting on the fly. (I’ll explain later)

A new trick I’ve started with very fearful and suspicious horses is that I will add a scent to the target. Whether you smear a bit of molasses on a supplement lid, or on the tip of a small, orange sport cone, or keep your target-towel in a bag of sweet feed, it makes the target more alluring. Once the horse gets the idea of touch, I then take a molasses-soaked sock, stretch it over a tennis ball and attach that to a stick. It makes for a very attractive moving target.

(Jumping several steps ahead, once your horse is fluent with the language of click-treat, you can teach your horse to target anything. For horses that are hard to catch, I teach them to target their halters or lead ropes. For horses fearful of grocery bags, I make a bag a target. Soon all the things they’d run away from, they now run towards, because targeting objects feels great.)

Location, Location, Location
The second step is deciding your location. I’ve taught targeting to horses in formal settings where they are in their stall, or on the other side of a fence. This makes for a controlled environment. I’ve also taught targeting on the fly with a new horse,  for example, that I needed to load on a trailer.

If you have a horse that is at all food-aggressive, muggy or pushy, I’d opt for the formal setting of the horse on one side of a barrier and handler on the other.

If you’re teaching on the fly, the use of the tiny rubber bucket is invaluable, which leads us to our next step.

Click Means Treat
In my mind, this is the single most important association. For a foal, targeting mama meant treat. Now your job is to create a sound–or bridge–to tell your horse, Right answer! for its action and the reward/treat is on the way. Without this sound or bridge the horse will have no idea how it just scored something wonderful.

This little tidbit of info is why for centuries we’ve been taught to never, ever hand feed horses. I can only imagine how progressive today’s horsemanship would be right now if someone like Alexander the Great clicked Bucephalus for the right answer. (I’m excited for our era, because we’re just starting to find out the wonders of attraction-based communication.)

Feeding horses from your hand without rules, such as without a click, is called indiscriminate hand feeding. Being indiscriminate is what creates problems, not the hand or the food. One of a horse’s strongest drives is to search for food. If food magically appears in a hand with no rhyme or reason, its mind will go into overdrive trying to figure out the reason. If the horse can’t makes sense of the pattern, it will resort to what it’s so good at, brute force to get the food. To me, it’s not disrespect or a horse trying to become dominant over a person. It’s simply doing what it knows, looking for food.

The moral of the story is never, ever, ever, ever, ever hand feed your horse unless it’s first heard a click. I never, ever, ever toss my horses hay or hand them a feed bucket unless they’ve heard a click. Unless they hear a click, they don’t expect food or go looking for it.

This is also why I teach Click Means Treat from a bucket first, instead of using my hand to deliver the reward. I want their first association of the delivery of food to be a result of their behavior, which has nothing to do with my body. The bucket is a perfect inanimate object for this purpose.

So with my horse on one side of the fence and me on the other, I call their name or make some sort of kissy sound to get their attention. When they look at me, I click and drop a treat purposefully into their bucket. Remember, a treat is something a horse finds yummy. I use the tiniest increment of a goody possible, simply because I like to click liberally and often. My horses love alfalfa pellets. A treat for them is a teaspoon to a tablespoon of green pellets.

If you have a horse on weight watchers, you can use their feed as treats and just subtract it from their daily ration. I’ve trained with clumps of hay. It just has to be something that the horse finds motivating. If it’s not, then you’ve lost the power of attraction and your horse’s attention.

So, you have your bucket, you have your treats, you have a hand held clicker or your tongue to make the sound of the click. The horse walks over. You click and drop food. You do this a few times until the horse starts to get the picture that click means treat.

Now, you up the bar. Hold out your object. If your horse is like most horses, it will be curious and touch the object. As soon as the horses nose touches the object, CLICK!  Not a moment before or after. It has to be the moment its nose touches. After the click, drop the food. If it doesn’t touch the object, hold the object so it will be in the direct path of your horse’s nose. Even if the horse accidentally touches the object it will still make the association.

Repeat this until you see the proverbial light bulb start to flicker. You will see the moment when the horse realizes,

Holy Moly! Every time I touch that thing, food appears. I really like this! Where is it? I want to touch it again!

At this point you can move the object to different positions. Hold the object to the right, click-treat. Hold it to the left, click-treat. Up high, click-treat. Down low, click-treat.

Repeat this until the horse knows the deal: touch-click-treat. Once the horse is clearly touching the object when you offer it, I establish the verbal cue of “Touch.” This often occurs in the very first session. I’ve seen it takes a few as five minutes, I’ve seen it take several days. It doesn’t matter how long it takes for the horse to make this connection. What matters is the strength of the connection. The more clearly the horse understands that touching equals clicking  which equals treating, the more you have established a direct and powerful line of communication to your horse’s brain.

With the touch-click-treat tool in my tool box, I can literally stop the flight response. If I’m taking DaVinci, my post-traumatic stress disorder horse for a walk, and he starts to panic, I hold out his target stick and say touch, then click-treat. I think the act of touching also reminds of them of their time as foal, where touching mama, their muzzle to her udders, brought good things.

On the Fly
If I’m teaching targeting to a horse at liberty, I use my tiny rubber bucket and fill it with goodies. I show the horse the bucket, let it take a bit of food, click and stash the bucket under my arm. I pause to let the horse chew and then present the bucket again and repeat. The horse gets used to the bucket appearing and disappearing.

I then hold the bucket out in front of the horse and ask the horse to walk. Naturally it follows the the bucket. When it reaches the bucket, I click, let it have a bite and remove the bucket. I do this very quickly, so quickly that the horse is so focused on the bucket that I can usually get it to walk right on to a trailer or wherever I need it to go. For me, this is much easier than the fancy footwork required to force a horse to do something.

If you think your horse understands that ‘click means treat’ and that the treat comes from the bucket, not you, this is when I’d begin treating from my hand. When I treat from my hand, I always, always, always stretch my hand as far as I can from my body. I keep my treat pouch/fanny pack turned away from the horse so it does not become a temptation. The idea is reinforced that the food is a result of the horse performing a behavior you’ve requested, not from winning a game of “Find the Food on the Human.”

To me the process of teaching touch-click-treat is the fastest and easiest way to teach your horse that it has a voice. This process also creates a fantastic spring board for you to teach any other behavior. I think it’s because you validate your horse every time it touches the target. On some level I suspect it tells your horse that you recognize its efforts and this shows the horse you hear it. In my experience, this mimics what a horse does at liberty in its daily activities.

If I use this communication with my horse, I feel it instantly recognizes me as a type of kindred spirit because I understand how it achieves what it wants. Plus, I’m honoring the horse’s digestive system by feeding it small of amounts of food often. All in all, I think this establishes me as the source of all good things. I create a place where a horse can feel safe, because its primary needs are met when it’s with me.

Something the Horse Does Earns it Something it Wants
Once the horse understands touch-click-treat, you can then begin to use your object as a moving target or stationary target. I use moving targets for trailer loading, halter-free leading, teaching lunging or backing up. Anything that I’d normally have to use pressure to teach, I can usually do with attraction by using a target.

For stationary targeting I place an object for the horse to touch while it stands still for medical treatment or grooming. For mounting, I’ll teach the horse to target its front feet to a concrete paver. I’ve even taught DaVinci to target his neck to a syringe so I didn’t have to be the one coming at him like a predator.

It’s innate for a horse to understand that it has to work for food. Something it does at liberty, like walking toward a clump of grass, grasping the clump in its teeth and shaking the clump earns it the ability to eat the grass. It walked, grasped and shook. The result of those actions earned it what it wanted.

You will be amazed at the difference in your horse’s enthusiasm when it gets to work for its food as a reward as opposed to being pressured into a behavior and then released from the pressure as the reward. A common misconception is that attraction-based training takes longer. I’ve found the opposite to be true. Once horses understand the concept of click-treat and targeting, everything seems to fall very easily and quickly into place.

This is often the hardest step for the human, to shift from traditional training of correcting the wrong behavior to creating a situation where the horse naturally gives the correct behavior. You’ll begin focusing on what you want, not what you don’t want and so will your horse.

A Reminder of the Hard, Fast Rules

  • Click the exact moment the horse performs what you want (precise timing).
  • Feed the treat with your hand extended far from your body.
  • Once you begin clicker training I’d suggest never feeding from your hand unless the horse has first heard a click. It’s all about the association. No click, no treat.
  • Make sure the treat is motivating to your horse.
  • Click liberally and often.
  • If you’re not smiling, you’re doing it wrong!

Teaching a horse to target literally becomes a new language for you and your horse to become totally conversant with one another. I believe the horse views targeting as something it has done all of its life, and now it gets rewarded for doing something so easy. I view targeting as a beautiful pressure-free way to interact with my horses. Basically it makes me feel really good, and I think my horses do too.



8 thoughts on “Teaching a Horse to Target

  1. Thanks Cheryl – I’m about to embark on clicker training, some of the questions that were bouncing around in my head (lots of space in there, ya know) you have provided an answer to.

    • Music to my ears! Feel free to ask away if more questions start ricocheting. My horses and I will answer to the best of our ability!
      Thanks for visiting,

  2. Great post, cheryl!

    One thing I’ve found that can be important for some horses is to keep the clicker quiet at first.
    Especially with horses that can be fearful or shy, some of them can be terrified of the sound of the clicker at first! If I think I might have a problem, I like to keep the clicker in my pocket for the first click or two, just until I can make sure the horse is okay with the sound. (Or until they start associating the sound with food!!)

    Another lesson I’ve learned recently is the first object you pick for targeting can make a big difference! I often use an orange cone, which is what I started with for Nika. Nika’s a very smart but very sensitive Arab who has some trust issues with people. After a handful of sessions, she was kind of getting it, but was often targeting half-heartedly or stopping and just didn’t seem to totally be getting it. Switched to a gatorade bottle one day and she was a super star. She just didn’t like that darn cone!

    I found your part about starting with the bucket really interesting. I’ll have to try that sometime with one of the horses.


    • Thanks! Great point about the quiet clicker. I’m a tongue clicker so I forget how loud a mechanical clicker can be. Perfect remedy to put the clicker in your pocket.

      I’m not a fan of the cones. I’ve knew one horse that didn’t like the strange orange cone, but the owner really wanted to use the cone. So to reinforce both horse and human, I put a piece of duct tape on the top of the cone, turned it upside down and put feed in it. The cone became a bucket and all was well!

      I love my little rubber bucket. It’s super portable and flexible and smells likes feed. I haven’t met a horse yet that hasn’t loved it immediately and wanted to touch it or at least see what’s in it. I think it’s because all horses speak bucket. Buckets hold a positive charge where as stiff orange cone may hold a neutral to negative charge.

      The other thing along with having a friendly target is having treats/food that the horse loves. It can’t just ‘like’ it, it has to be seriously inviting. I’ve known a few horses and humans that gave up during the first few targeting lessons simply because the horse was ambivalent about the treats. Once the treats were changed they were back in business.

      I’ve found too that once the horse understand the game, the treats don’t have to be as exciting. It’s just those first few lessons that seem to seal the deal.

      Thanks too for the tip about the Gatorade bottle. It makes for a lightweight attractive target and easy to turn into a target stick with a bit of duct tape on to a dowel or crop.

      Many thanks for all the great tips!

  3. Hi Cheryl,
    Thanks for this explanation! It really helped to fill in a lot of the holes that I had in my clicker training knowledge base. 🙂 I’m wondering if you can explain how to go about clicker training with a horse when these holes are present. For example, I started with hand-feeding treats (before clicker training) and then went into clicker training with hand-feeding, too (no bucket or any other intermediate step). Fortunately, my horse is not particularly pushy, but he will sometimes nudge at me. This makes me think I have some “institutional memory” in there. So, what are your thoughts on “re-training” clicker training?

    Thanks so much!!!

    • Great! I’m glad it helped. Fortunately, the type of hole you mention is easy to fill. The first horse I began attraction based work with using a clicker was Romeo. I made every mistake in the book and he loved it. When I’d be at an event with him painting and I’d take a break to chat with someone, that was his cue to dive into my treat pouch. He assumed since I wasn’t directing my attention at him could simply treat himself.

      As you can predict, the next time I was working with him and chatted with a neighbor, he dove for the treat pouch. This made me do two things. The first was to remind him that the treat comes from my hand, not the pouch and he only receives a treat with his head away from my body. I even have a “Where does your head go?” cue. When I ask that question he tucks his nose and stands like a statue.

      What helped immensely was consistency, making certain the treat pouch was out of his reach as well as giving him something to do while I was chatting. Then I made it a point to reward him from my hand with more excitement and goodies than he’d usually receive with his previous pouch-free-for-all.

      This is where I try to make the right behavior so easy and clear it doesn’t occur to the horse to give me the wrong behavior.

      I do think they retain that institutional memory. I don’t think that they forget, but I do think you can reprogram and replace the undesirable behavior with a new one. I do this by making the payoff for the correct behavior ten times more fun for the horse than the payoff it would get from pouch diving or mugging.

      With a nudger, I’d ignore the nudging, but immediately ask for something like head down, or back up and then reward like crazy. Ideally I’d try to be proactive and ask him to do something before he starts a nudge. One of my favorite behaviors I’ve started training is back and stay. So instead of mugging, they’ll actually back up, stay and wait for the click and treat.

      For me it’s just a matter of changing their association. Your horse has the notion that nudging gets him what he wants. After he sees that nudging has no pay-off, but backing up a few steps does, he’ll begin offering you the behavior you want.

      Keep me posted!

  4. This is great, thanks for writing this post. I am using some of these techniques but I am trying to figure out what I should use as a bridger or if I already have one. I use the mouth click to as a trot cue, and I have been using “Good Boy” as a sort of bridger, but we’re at the point where he doesn’t always get food but the phrase makes him feel good. Would starting to be constant with the goodboy=treat be moving back for us? IS the goal to eventually not have to provide food ALL of the time and just occasionally? Right now, if its a new skill he’s learning, I am goodboy/treating consistently, but if its something he already knows its constant goodboy/random treat.


    • My thoughts are, if what you are doing is working for you, keep going. I’m a firm believer that your horse can understand your intent and your communication can be unique to you. I’m not one to tell you “You must do it this way!” because I think part of understanding attraction-based communication is figuring out what really and truly is meaningful to your horse.

      Here’s what I do that seems to be working well. In my pasture, click always means treat. No click no food. ‘Good boy/girl’ means right answer but no edible treat. But I try to pause for a fraction of a second and have moment of silent meditation telepathically showering them with appreciation. (I totally believe they can ‘see’ our thoughts) If need be, they’ll get a soft pat or some other non-food reinforcer.

      This allows me to work with them with or without treats. I also use a verbal cue of ‘almost, keep going’ with an anticipatory tone that says “You’ve almost got it!” and then when I get the behavior I can use either method, a click-treat or a verbal phrase to reinforce.

      When I’m training a new behavior, I exclusively use click-treat. When they are happily performing the new behavior I can then use a verbal cue to signal ‘right answer’ and omit the food reward. It seems that after consistent attraction-based work my horses work for the right answer, not necessarily the treat.

      Since I use the click exclusively for click equals treat, my cues for gait changes are a verbal cue such as ‘trot’ and kissing sound if I don’t get trot immediately.

      Back to your question. Since he already has an association with ‘Good Boy’ I would create a new verbal cue that you could consistently say in the same tone, each time, that means treat every time. You could keep ‘Good Boy’ cue and use it basically like you’re using it now. I personally like to have something very solid that the horse can count on, like a vending machine that always works. Nothing is more frustrating to me than to hit that button and not get what I want. I like to provide that safe haven of click guarantees treat every time.

      As for the goal of not using food all of the time, for me it’s not necessarily a goal, but it seems to happen naturally. For instance, when I was teaching my horse to stand in one place unhaltered so I could clean his feet, I used to click profusely for anything that resembled standing still. After I got ‘standing still’ I’d only click if I could walk around him once while he stayed in place. After I got ‘stay’ solid, I’d click each time I’d pick up a hoof. Now I can pick all four feet with him standing in one place without a click.

      However, if at anytime I see that his attention has wondered, I’ll always bring it back with a click-treat. I’m finding with my horses, the success of getting the behavior I want is totally contingent to how well I’ve kept their attention. So if on a particular day, if I can only get their attention with click-treat, then that’s what I’ll do. Other days I’ll barely touch the treat pouch.

      With the random treats, even if it’s a behavior they already know, I’ll stay super watchful and click for brilliance in that particular behavior. I can’t say for certain if horses view anything as random since my guys are always trying to figure out patterns and sequences (they are so much more observant and technical than I am!). Even though it appears I may be withholding a click or treating randomly I’m actually looking for meaningful moment to reinforce.

      I guess my goal is to create a multi-lingual horse. I want them to be able to understand both attraction and pressure based communication as well as communication with or without a food reward. I found that by creating two sets of cues, 1) Click always means treat, and 2) Good Boy/Girl means right answer, but no food. Sometimes, just as you said, the phrase is enough of a reinforcer, if not then I’ll add a soft pat or scratch an itchy spot to really mark the moment.

      Also too, my focus is rarely on the food, or how much I’ve giving or when I’m giving it. My main focus is on watching to see if my horse is feeling good about the conversation. If I can get and hold his attention without food, then I don’t use it. If I see he’s super attentive with food, then you bet I’ll use it. I just try to tailor my communication (food, sans food) to the particular needs of my horse at that moment.

      I hope my long winded answer for your concise question didn’t bore or confuse! (I’ve officially given up my morning cup of coffee. My synapses seem to be firing much more slowly, wah. My typing, however is much less jittery!)

      Thank you,

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