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:
- Decide on an object for your horse to touch.
- Decide on a location to introduce the object.
- Teach click means treat.
- 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.